Two Anglican church leaders ended a cross-country tour about native issues on March 12 by visiting one of the most unusual chapels in Canada – a wooden structure on the shore of a northern Ontario lake hand-built by an Oji-Cree elder, flying the Anglican Church of Canada flag.
“It was the perfect way to end the tour,” said Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Canadian church, who made the trip with Bishop Mark MacDonald, the national indigenous bishop.
After a flight from Winnipeg to the Oji-Cree First Nations community of Muskrat Dam, Ont., the travelers were driven over a road plowed on frozen lakes to the Magiss Lake hunting camp of Jake and Harriet Sawanas, about 700 km northwest of Thunder Bay, Ont.
“(Mr. Sawanas) was an amazingly fit person in his late 60s, who looked 20 years younger. He had built this chapel out of hand-hewn logs, with an altar, pulpit, pews, even a sound system and an electric organ,” said Bishop MacDonald in an interview.
The two bishops were accompanied by Muskrat Dam Chief Vernon Morris, Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Stan Beardy and Rev. Morris Fiddler, an Anglican priest.
“The chapel is dedicated to St. Thomas and Jake said he built it to the glory of God and his ancestors. There were hymn texts on pieces of cardboard on the walls in (Oji-Cree) syllabics. I remember he said number 783 – Spirit of the Living God, Fall Afresh on Me – was his personal hymn,” said Archbishop Hiltz in an interview after he returned.
Archbishop Hiltz and Bishop MacDonald led a prayer service in the chapel and both delivered short homilies. “I spoke about the journey through Lent and finding healing and reconciliation through Christ,” said Archbishop Hiltz.
The visit to the chapel was prompted by an invitation from Mr. Beardy, who visited the church’s national office in late January to urge support for native treaty rights. Nishnawbe Aski Nation, based in Thunder Bay, Ont., is a political and territorial organization representing 49 First Nation communities in northern Ontario.
After a lunch of bear, moose heart and fried pickerel, the visitors signed a document reaffirming relations between native people and the Anglican Church of Canada. The last view of Jake Sawanas’ chapel was an Anglican church flag flying on a hand-made pole “against a blue sky,” recalled Archbishop Hiltz.
Before the journey north, the two bishops had been on a four-city trip with other church leaders to draw attention to the federal government’s upcoming Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which will hear stories of the troubled native residential school system.
After the trip to the chapel, the leaders visited with residents of Muskrat Dam, some of whom had attended the residential schools, said Archbishop Hiltz. “Mark and I gave some reflections at an evening service at St. Matthew’s church, a brand new, beautiful church in Muskrat Dam,” said Archbishop Hiltz.
“Stan (Beardy) pointed out how critical it was for the message (that churches are participating in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) to get out to far flung places, to people like Jake who are amazingly loyal to the church. It was a powerful way to expand what we were doing on the TRC tour,” said Bishop MacDonald.