Native seminary blends two traditions

Published August 30, 2006

The Dr. William Winter School for Ministry gathers a variety of individuals twice a year. Sheba McKay, 23, (left) wants to further her Christian walk; Bill Morris is a lay reader in his parish and Rev. Lydia Mamakwa was involved in setting up the school’s program.

Kingfisher Lake, Ont.
It is a most unusual seminary.

For two weeks in July, students at the Dr. William Winter School for Ministry traveled across Kingfisher Lake in northern Ontario to a shoreline camp called Big Beaver that featured classes on St. Paul’s letters, preaching and the theology of baptism.

If the word “seminary” conjures up images of university spires set in the middle of an urban centre, then the William Winter School presents a completely different picture.

As 35 adults attended class in one of three wooden buildings, children swam in the lake and went to Bible school and kokums – Cree for grandmothers – cooked fresh whitefish in a huge iron skillet over an open fire sheltered by a teepee.

Attendees spent the two weeks sleeping in small wooden cabins and taking meals in a mess hall that sometimes felt as hot as 40 C. They had traveled by plane to Kingfisher Lake, about 520 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., and inaccessible by road in the summer. In colder months, vehicles travel over a winter road plowed over frozen muskeg and lakes.

The July session is one of two each year (the other is in February, also in Kingfisher Lake, but at the Anglican mission house in town) that offer courses to those training for ordained ministry, to lay readers and to those – lay or ordained – interested in expanding their knowledge of Christianity and the Anglican church.

All classes are bilingual – English and Oji-Cree. Classes also include instruction in Cree syllabics, since many middle-aged native people did not learn their written language in school. Although the curriculum is aimed at native people, the school is open to all and at the summer session, two non-indigenous students attended.

The school’s location was part of the vision of Archdeacon William Winter, now 85 and a resident of Kingfisher Lake. “It is from the Scripture where Jesus took his disciples to the other side of a lake to be alone. So you go out across the lake and have immersion in the Scripture and the teaching,” said principal, Archdeacon Larry Beardy, of the diocese of Keewatin.

Days at William Winter are full, beginning with morning prayer at 7 a.m., through classes in the morning and afternoon and meal breaks, ending with evening prayer at 7 p.m. Using the Book of Common Prayer, services were a potent mixture of Elizabethan English and Oji-Cree. One afternoon, when the summer heat overwhelmed the little window air conditioner running on a portable generator, the students left the stifling building for a hymn sing beside the lake.

In the middle of the second week of the school’s summer term, Rev. Joel Bighead, of Wunnumin Lake, conducted a class on preaching. Speaking in Oji-Cree that was translated into English every few minutes, Mr. Bighead asked how many people in the class had not had the opportunity to preach.

About three-quarters of the group of 35 raised their hands. He stressed the universal nature of preaching. “You need to have an understanding of God’s way, an understanding of the heavenly things God wants us to relay. If you talk to people about your personal issues and how the world is treating you that is not what God wants to tell his people. Preaching the word of God saves souls and brings them to God’s glory,” he told the group.

Now in its fourth year of operation, the William Winter School is a descendent of a diocesan program called Train An Indigenous Priest (TAIP), which began in the 1960s. When TAIP was renamed, Saskatoon’s College of Emmanuel and St. Chad agreed to award a diploma in indigenous anglican theology to students who complete eight sessions at the school.

“They have an incredible thing there, phenomenal community ownership of a vision for education. It’s a very effective piece of theological education owned and led by aboriginal people themselves,” said Walter Deller, principal of Emmanuel and St. Chad, in an interview.

Among the students in the preaching class were Bill Morris, Sheba McKay and Rev. Lydia Mamakwa, all at the school for different reasons.

Mr. Morris, who is 58 and a lay reader at St. Mary’s church in Sioux Lookout, Ont., is a well-known radio broadcaster with the Wawatay Native Communications Society. He attended two Christian residential schools, Pelican Lake (run by the Anglican church) and Cecilia Jeffrey (Presbyterian). “A lot of people (who attended the schools) have broken spirits. Myself, I didn’t know who I was,” he said. Then, about 10 years ago, Mr. Morris joined the first native diocesan bishop, Gordon Beardy, in his “sacred walk for healing” for former residential school students. “After that, I could talk about what happened in the residential schools,” he said. He noted that when he arrived at residential school at the age of seven, he could not speak English but was also forbidden to speak his native language; he was hit with a broomstick when he did not respond to instructions. Now, at the William Winter school, Cree elders such as Archdeacon Alex Fox and Mr. Bighead teach in native languages.

One course discussed the theology of forgiveness, an especially poignant subject for former residential school students. “It’s not so easy to forgive someone who caused you lots of problems, but I want to go on with my ministry. This is part of my healing journey,” said Mr. Morris.

Sheba McKay, who is 23, already has several years of experience at national and diocesan church levels on committees and as a youth delegate to provincial and national synods. Asked why she is attending William Winter, she notes “my mother used to bring me here (to Big Beaver Camp).” Contemplating a career in law, Ms. McKay is a young woman whose name arose in several conversations with native and non-native community members as a potential future leader. At William Winter, she said, she is feeding her soul. “I am learning a lot about God’s word, who he is and how he works around us and in us and I’m learning more about the church itself. Because of that relationship with God, I feel a wholeness within. I want to go on further with my Christian walk,” she said.

Rev. Lydia Mamakwa, 49, who leads a local team that hosts the William Winter participants, is one of seven indigenous priests at Kingfisher’s church of St. Matthew. Like most native priests, she is not paid by the church and works at a paying job in the Kingfisher Lake First Nation office. She was involved in setting up the William Winter program.

She noted that the school is not subsidized by the diocese, but does its own fundraising, sometimes through radio appeals, bake sales and the proceeds from a little white dish atop the refrigerator in the mission house, where a sign reads “pop and chips, $1.50.”

She went to a Mennonite residential school, Poplar Hill, for grades seven and eight. “My experience was very positive. I valued what they were teaching us – how to cook, sew, can, garden, look after a sick person. I was just learning to converse in the English language,” she said. Although the students were forbidden to speak their native tongues, she said she did not forget. About 90 per cent of the 500 residents of Kingfisher Lake are fluent in Oji-Cree.

“There’s a lot of struggle and turmoil in the native peoples. When you have that relationship with Christ you have something to help you each day. I have seen people quit drinking through church. I know who I am as an aboriginal person,” she said.

For Ms. Mamakwa, there is another reason to attend William Winter. She has worked as a mental health counselor and a bookkeeper and is working toward a diploma in accounting. “I love learning,” she said.

But, surely as a priest, she already knows the contents of some of the courses, such as baptism? “I don’t think we can ever say we know all about baptism. We are at different levels here. Some students are starting to explore the Christian faith, and it’s always refreshing to hear instruction from others,” she said.

A couple of days before students headed back across the lake and boarded planes for their home communities, Archdeacon Winter visited the class and, in an interview, was asked why the school is needed. He said he felt ministering to young people is key. “In this time in our history, there is a lot of need toward young people. They are separated from the church and there is a high rate of suicide in our communities. I see sometimes a lack of ministry to young people,” he said.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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