‘Ministry of presence’ alive in the Yukon, says primate

Diocese of Yukon Bishop Larry Robertson and Archbishop Fred Hiltz drove 3,000 km visiting five parishes, mostly in remote rural communities of northern B.C. and the Yukon. Photo: Diocese of Yukon
Diocese of Yukon Bishop Larry Robertson and Archbishop Fred Hiltz drove 3,000 km visiting five parishes, mostly in remote rural communities of northern B.C. and the Yukon. Photo: Diocese of Yukon
Published July 14, 2015

Archbishop Fred Hiltz recently returned from an eight-day visit to the diocese of Yukon where, he said, alternative approaches to ministry have allowed cash-strapped local parishes to not only meet the needs of their communities, but to actually thrive. [Click here for more photos of the visit.]

Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, and diocese of Yukon bishop, Larry Robertson, drove 3,000 km from June 27 to July 5, visiting five parishes, mostly in remote rural communities.

The visit was, “as they say in the Yukon, ‘larger than life,’ ” said Hiltz, whose visit covered a wide swath of territory, including Atlin, in northern British Columbia; Haines Junction, a wilderness town within the traditional territory of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations; and Mayo, a village along the Silver Trail and the Stewart River, about 400 km north of Whitehorse.

“It allowed him to see not just the cathedral [in Whitehorse] but the smaller parishes, the different kinds of ministries we have, how we are surviving with only three stipendiary clergy,” said Robertson in an interview.

In Atlin, which Hiltz described as “a beautiful little community near Alaska,” he and Robertson joined the parish of St. Martin in celebrating its 115th anniversary on June 28. Two non-stipendiary deacons, who happen to be mother and daughter, lead the parish: the Rev. Vera Kirkwood, age 90, and the Rev. Dorothy Odian, who also works as an ambulance driver.

With some members of the congregation of St. Martin’s in Atlin, northwest B.C. Photo: Diocese of Yukon

From Atlin they visited the parish of St. Philip in Teslin, a lakeside community on the Alaska Highway and home to the Tlingit First Nation. The Rev. Sarah Usher— full-time diocesan administrative officer—looks after the parish on a voluntary basis.

The next stop was the parish of St. Christopher in Haines Junction, where Hiltz said he saw firsthand how the diocese has established “a very successful ministry of presence” in the community.

The Rev. Lynn DeBrabandere, an ordained deacon, “is doing amazing work in reaching out in very good ways to the Indigenous community, where there’s a lot of people struggling with addiction,” said Hiltz. “She has a vision for a hostel for those who want to go and stay on the road to recovery.”

St. Christopher’s—an eight-sided log cabin designed and built by a local craftsman—also houses a thrift store and an art gallery in the basement; DeBrabandere lives in the rectory. “She’s been there three years and she loves it. They love and respect her there,” said Hiltz.

Originally from Ontario, DeBrabandere had responded to Robertson’s call for experienced lay people, catechists or retired priests to spend a year in the diocese as a volunteer to exercise a “ministry of presence.” (Charles and Valerie Maier, from the diocese of Ottawa, are set to begin a ministry of presence in Mayo this September.)

Thrift store run by St. Christopher's Anglican Church in Haines Junction. Photo: Diocese of Yukon
Thrift store run by St. Christopher’s Anglican Church in Haines Junction. Photo: Diocese of Yukon

A ministry of presence means that in the absence of a registered parish priest, “there is someone in the community who represents the ministry of Christ,” explained Hiltz.

A lot of the deacons are licensed to do baptisms and marriages, said Robertson, explaining the value of reserved sacrament in communities in the North. “In places where there’s no priest, that’s a very important part of ministry…We look at trained local people and they need to be leaders, chosen out of the community by the community,” he said. “I don’t license anybody unless the local vestry agrees to it.”

As a volunteer, DeBrabandere doesn’t receive a salary, but she is given a place to stay and the diocese looks after her travel expenses. The ministry is geared toward those who have a steady income and a vehicle; it has typically attracted retired lay people and clergy.

This new ministry has unleashed “new, phenomenal ideas,” in communities, said Robertson, noting how DeBrabandere’s efforts have made inroads in First Nations communities. “Lynn came and took the bull by the horns and started to develop things, including a youth camp with 40 kids this year.”

It has also meant huge savings for the diocese. It costs about $50,000 a year to keep a priest; a ministry of presence, about $15,000. “It’s still money, but it’s a heck lot less from a diocesan point of view,” Robertson said. The other benefit is that “it gives people who have skills and talent an opportunity to continue to share and to give to God’s work, and for people to receive it.”

The idea for a ministry of presence was borne out of “desperation,” said Robertson, laughing.

When he became bishop of the Yukon in 2010, the diocese was grappling with diminishing finances, dwindling congregations and the question of whether it would even survive.

“We used to have 18 parishes, but 10-15 years ago we realized that we were going to go quickly under if we kept them all open. We had 15 clergy and we just didn’t have the funds,” said Robertson. Today, the diocese has 13 parishes, which are run by three stipendiary clergy, four volunteers under the ministry of presence, and non-stipendiary deacons and lay leaders.

Robertson said the diocese has had to face the reality that “very few of our churches can be self-supporting. We just don’t have the numbers and the communities.” And yet, he said, the need for ministry remains.

In the South, he said, “if you have big cities, they say, ‘if you can’t afford a priest, you go to the next parish. You can’t do that here. We just can’t drive to the next community, because it’s a three-hour drive.” Robertson said members of the diocesan council addressed the challenge by asking themselves: “How do we best meet the needs of people? How do we get them pastoral care, using the funds that we have and the limited people that we have?”

For years, the diocese responded to the challenge by tapping locally trained lay people, many of whom have since been ordained. “But there were still several parishes without ministers, with very little leadership,” said Robertson.

The diocese decided to “refocus” its view on what a minister is, said Robertson. Instead of focusing on ordained stipendiary ministry, it decided to look for people who “want to continue to serve, who have been in lay ministry and now have time to do more.”

Those who came as volunteers have done so because they are motivated by “love for God, love for people and a desire to live in a different place,” said Robertson. They are also excited about working with First Nations communities, different types of churches and the opportunity to learn from others and share their gifts. And, he conceded, “It’s exciting to come to the Yukon, the place where there’s been so much history and legend, and become a part of that.”

His typical pitch, Robertson said with a laugh, is this: “We offer people a house, a rectory and some of the most awesome country that God ever made.”

Hiltz said the new, creative approaches to ministry have been “encouraging for the local people because they see the bishop showing some interest in the community; they see the diocese putting—albeit limited—funds into good living conditions [in the rectory]…They have the sense that the diocese cares about them.”

When asked whether the needs of the communities are now being met through these new ministries, Robertson said, “Not as much as I’d like [them] to, but they’re being met better.” He could use two more volunteers for places in need of a ministry of presence and one more stipendiary priest, he said.

During the visit, Hiltz also had a chance to visit Moosehide, which emerged when Dawson City became the centre of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1896 to the 1900s. Fearing that Aboriginal people were being pushed from their lands as throngs of fortune seekers came looking for gold, Hän First Nations Chief Isaac struck an arrangement with the first bishop of the Yukon, William Bompas, to secure land where his people could relocate.

The settlement, located five km downriver from Dawson City, included a little church called St. Barnabas. The building, built in 1901, is no longer safe to use, and the diocese is contracting an engineer to assess whether it can be saved.

At St. Barnabas Anglican Church, Moosehide, which was built in 1901. Photo: Diocese of Yukon
At St. Barnabas Anglican Church, Moosehide, which was built in 1901. Photo: Diocese of Yukon

No one lives in the village year-round anymore, but in the summer, the local chief and some elders come and stay in the cabins.

Both Hiltz and Robertson said that the visit also provided them with a great opportunity to get to know each other on a personal level.

“It was very good in terms of getting to know Larry more deeply. It was, quite frankly, a gift to me in terms of our relationship as bishops in the church,” said Hiltz. “Larry’s got a huge heart for the well-being of the church in every place. He’s down to earth. He’s humble. He’s funny. He really cares about the church as the servant of Christ in the community.”

Robertson said the primate “had a ball” when he shared the driving duties with him. “I got the impression that he sort of missed [being able to drive] in Toronto.” Driving hundreds of kilometers every day gave them an opportunity to just talk. “It allowed us to get to know each other…You see him in a non-professional way, as a fellow bishop, as a friend in an everyday sort of way,” he said. “I really appreciated just being able to share and being open to each other.”

He found out that Hiltz loves dogs, “and dogs love him.” Both discovered a shared love for small-town ministry. “We were able to talk about issues that people in big cities don’t know about, and he can understand the issues we have,” said Robertson.

Summer was the perfect time for the primate to visit the 154-year-old diocese, added Robertson. There were moments when they simply enjoyed the scenery and marvelled at the sight of a couple of moose and two calves.

Archbishop Fred Hiltz poses in front of an impressive mountain peak in Atlin, B.C. Photo: Diocese of Yukon
Archbishop Fred Hiltz poses in front of an impressive mountain peak in Atlin, B.C. Photo: Diocese of Yukon

“He [Hiltz] certainly seemed like he was able to just relax and not have to always be on his toes,” said Robertson. “We had him busy, but [there weren’t] people accusing him of this or that. They were just happy to see the primate. They were just glad that he was there. He saw parishes that just want to care for each other and love each other, and that includes him.”


Keep on reading

Skip to content