Midnight sun diocese is steeped in history

Published June 1, 2001

Map of the diocese

Bishop Terrence Buckle pulls up in his truck and jumps out, walks over to the camera, and stops. He grins. “Welcome to the land of the midnight sun,” he says, squinting into the brightness, as he introduces a promotional video for the diocese of the Yukon.

Seconds before, viewers were treated to opening scenes of a grizzly bear family munching on the long grasses that edge the highway.

Bishop Buckle, 60, calls the diocese “a great big playground.” Yukon covers 750,000 square kilometers and extends as far into British Columbia as Fort Nelson. Most of it is above the 60th parallel, stretching from Fort Nelson in Northern British Columbia to Old Crow above the Arctic Circle.

“It’s a beautiful land with very few people and an interesting history,” said Bishop Buckle in an interview. And it’s spread very thin – the entire population of the diocese is only 30,000, and 20 per cent are First Nations people. There are 14 parishes, eight priests, four deacons (a nurse, a community health worker, an elder and a senior) and a South African minister, Canon John Tyrell, who runs the Yukon College campus and teaches there. Two-thirds of the population lives in the see city of Whitehorse.

Anglican history began several years before white settlers arrived in any significant numbers, and is rife with stories of courage and commitment.

In 1861, Rev. William West Kirkby, a minister sent by the Church Missionary Society from England, canoed from Fort Simpson to Fort Yukon and began the saga of the church in the northwest. Impressed with the responsiveness of the native people to the gospel, he returned the next summer with a missionary, Robert McDonald, who stayed on at Fort Yukon where he lived and traveled with the native people for 40 years.

During his ministry among the people, Mr. McDonald translated the whole of the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and many hymns into the Takudh dialect. He also wrote a grammar and dictionary of the language.

During the Gold Rush in 1897 and 1898, Church Camp Missionaries traveled the Klon-dike creeks to evangelize and comfort heartbroken prospectors. The Anglican church is also credited with initiating visits of mounted police to the remotest areas of the territory.

An initially huge diocese, then called Rupert’s Land, stretched west from Manitoba to the Rocky Mountains and north to the Arctic Ocean. It was divided several times in the late 1800s, which led to the creation of the diocese of the Yukon in 1907.

A big change came with the building of the Alaska Highway in 1942, although civilians were not allowed on it until 1946. It stretches over 3,898 kilometers from Dawson Creek in the Yukon to Fairbanks, Alaska. As communities sprang up along the highway, the diocese folded them into its ministry. The diocese established the Sunday School Caravan Mission or “vanners,” which traveled the highways and ministered to families in the summer.

The see was moved from the once thriving city of Dawson, reduced to a town after the demise of the gold rush, to the new capital city of Whitehorse, a transportation hub, in 1952.

The Anglican Church is the second largest denomination throughout the diocese after the Roman Catholic Church.

Now at Yukon for six years, Bishop Buckle moved from his position as suffragan bishop for the diocese of the Arctic and in 1995 was elected bishop of Yukon. Bishop Buckle and his wife Blanche first moved north from Simcoe in Ontario in 1966, and have been north ever since.

Church attendance in the diocese is actually stable, the bishop reports. There are 1,441 on the parish rolls, 30 clergy and church workers, and 8,618 “ministered to,” according to the Anglican Church directory.

The bishop has initiated a five-year plan for Whitehorse. The church of the Northern Apostles has been asked to be self-sustaining within two years. If it cannot, Bishop Buckle said, it will merge with Christ Church Cathedral’s congregation. St. Simon’s congregation, which is mostly native, will merge with the cathedral congregation by the end of September.

Bishop Buckle says people of the diocese are trying to look after themselves. “The people here have identified their problems and want to address them. A good number of people have parents who have not taken them to church. There has been a change in the way of life, and now there are problems with alcohol and drugs,” he said.

The church’s role in the north has changed, he observed. “In the past people turned to the church more for help. Now we have to build a relationship of trust.”

A focus for both the city and the countryside, said Bishop Buckle, is the development of “servanthood ministry” among lay Anglicans. “We hope to equip all sorts of people to reach out to the community which they serve,” he said.

There is a one-week bishop’s assembly every two years for people interested in training for lay or ordained ministry. People from the diocese of the Arctic and Alaska also attend.

What does Bishop Buckle love about the Yukon? “The informal, relaxed and laid-back atmosphere,” he said with a smile. “When you are working in communities of three or four hundred people, you get to know people well,” he added.

This concludes the series of 30 diocesan profiles that the Anglican Journal began in September 1998.


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