In 2015, Charles and Valerie Maier arrived at the parish of St. Mary with St. Mark in Mayo, Yukon to serve as joint lay ministers, with the intention of staying for a year. They ended up returning to Ottawa six years later. (In the meantime, in 2018, Valerie began serving as president of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, a role she still fills today.) Here, in their own words, is their story.
In 2015 we found ourselves facing retirement from our careers in Ottawa. It was a scary feeling, not unlike what we had experienced some 40 years earlier when we were first married. Admittedly we were now more financially secure, but the sense of uncertainty we felt about the future was as almost as unsettling as it had been in those early days of marriage. What were we going to do? What did we want our future to look like? And how would all this affect our relationship as a couple?
We talked and reflected about the fact that the church had been a constant for us as our marriage and careers developed, as we moved across the country and raised our four children. And we heard about the diocese of the Yukon and something it was calling a “ministry of presence” program. The primary expectation was to be there, to listen, and to respond as a Christian presence in the place we were called to be.
We knew the Yukon. In the 1980s our work had taken us to Whitehorse for eight years. Since then we had kept up with developments, and were concerned to read how a diocese that once deployed around a dozen priests was now left with only three or four ordained clergy to provide spiritual care to the people of a region spanning the entire Yukon Territory and a swath of northern British Columbia. A number of factors had resulted in clergy terminations and parish closures: the shutting of many local mines had hurt the economy, and many of those who lost their jobs had left; shrinking congregations had meant less in the way of donations; and funding from a national church facing its own financial challenges had decreased.
A call was out for volunteers, lay or ordained, to come and help fill the many parish vacancies. The diocese offered support for travel, a very nominal living allowance and accommodations in a parish rectory. We prayed about it, met with the bishop and were in due course appointed joint lay ministers to the parish of St. Mary with St. Mark in Mayo, Yukon, with the idea that we would stay for a little more than a year.
And that is where the adventure and the challenges began. The Mayo rectory needed repairs, so a one of us—Valerie—taught her last high school classes in Ottawa, the other—Charles—headed north to assist a carpenter in making the rectory habitable. A new furnace, a few sheets of drywall, several bundles of roofing shingles and many cans of paint later, we moved into what turned out to be our cozy home for the next six years.
We were grateful and honoured to be welcomed and accepted into the community. Mayo forms part of the traditional lands of the self-governing Na-Cho Nyak Dun first nation in north-central Yukon. It boasts about 400 mainly First Nations inhabitants and sits a little over 400 km from Whitehorse, the nearest major centre. The village lies along the banks of the Stewart River, part of a breathtaking landscape of mountains, fertile fields, fish, game, and rich mineral and natural resources.
We found ourselves increasingly drawn into the life of this small community of diverse peoples linked in various ways to a land that challenges and defines. The reality of the land, including the severity of the climate, shapes the need for residents to support one another. Pulling together and helping your neighbour is essential if you wish to survive and flourish. You share when times are good, knowing you will receive when you are in need.
The people of Na-Cho Nyak Dun teach of three pillars needed to keep society in balance: sharing, caring and respect. It was very moving to be able to participate in this beautiful spiritual understanding.
The traditional spiritual underpinnings of the community often seemed in better repair than the physical structures brought by the missionaries. We discovered the church building, erected in 1922, had been condemned by building inspectors. No more than ten persons were to enter at a time, as the foundations were sinking into the melting permafrost—unfortunate as it was one of the few buildings in the area large enough to host community events.
We also found, after a little research, that grants from the Anglican Foundation of Canada and from a Yukon government program intended to assist in the preservation of historic properties would cover the necessary repairs. The next two years witnessed the church building raised on rails, moved to one side, an entire new foundation system installed and the building returned to its original location.
The restoration work was mostly done by local people. This opened connections with the community, especially among vulnerable men whose lives had been devastated by the trauma of residential schools in the mid-twentieth century. We began offering a weekly lunch group for people to share their experiences and support one another. This was endorsed by the first nation, which quickly drew in wider community support.
Deeply troubling to see was the intergenerational harm caused by church and state in ripping children out of their homes to spend years away in schools intended to strip them of their traditional language and culture. It was clear that reconciliation was a process that involved participation by all parties to these practices.
Coming together, being present, and listening to one another seemed key to achieve healing. We needed to face the truth, listen to one another, pray together for forgiveness and take actions to promote healing. We soon found the first nation and the parish working together to forge a new relationship based on mutual respect.
Connecting with youth was a challenge partly met when a Toronto church expressed interest in participating in a youth exchange. Generous federal funding programs helped, and after three years of Toronto-Mayo exchange visits, a teacher helped us in offering after-school youth-oriented Alpha courses.
We learned how the land played a central role in the emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing of the community. For many, healing was best achieved on the land, and camps were organized as an effective way to achieve this. We were asked to assist at these camps, and discovered how God’s creation could help all of us in finding God’s plan for living life more abundantly.
Many elders recalled how the Mayo church had provided a place for engaging in traditional crafts, resulting in the creation of magnificent beaded altar frontals, but this had not been the case for many years. The first nation and the parish put forward a proposal to open the church in the summer to tourists, with local crafters in attendance and available to talk to visitors while they engaged in their work. Funding was readily provided by the territorial government. Besides deepening church/community relations, this resulted in more beaded pieces to decorate the worship space, continuing a century-old tradition.
It seemed whenever a challenge presented itself, a way was found forward. Housing was a pressing need for the community, as was cash flow for the parish. Why not convert part of the rectory garage into an affordable housing apartment? The territorial government loved the idea and provided a subsidy. Six months later a local person was accommodated, and a modest rent was boosting the parochial budget.
Similarly, when the cross atop the church bell tower needed some serious repair work, the community rallied round. The parish applied for and received a heritage grant from the territorial government, and many watched as volunteers erected the scaffolding and climbed to new heights to get the work done.
We arrived in Mayo with hope that perhaps by being present and journeying with a community, we might see what God had in mind for them and for us. We were amazed to see how this simple formula worked. The number of people interested in attending church grew from a small handful to more than a dozen, while the parish benefitted all aspects of the community.
We found ourselves sliding into a third, fourth, and fifth year, each punctuated by amazing demonstrations of how God can work wonders. And this work affected our relationship as a couple too. We discovered how each of us had a different range of skills and talents we brought to the community, and that when we combined these with the talents of others, the impact was amazing.
And then COVID-19 struck. Church and community celebrations ended. Families were isolated in their homes. Money from various pandemic relief funds flowed into the community bringing increased illicit drug and alcohol abuse. Over the years we had witnessed a range of tragedies, but with COVID-19 these increased, with devastating consequences for a community prohibited from coming together either to grieve or rejoice.
Nevertheless, our time had come to say our good-byes. While we were away four grandchildren had been born and we resolved that it was time for others to take up the adventure and the challenge we had known, and to experience the amazing rewards of helping make reconciliation real for one small community. Today Mayo is part of a three-point parish covering all of North Yukon, and it calls out now in a time of need.
We packed up to leave in the autumn of 2021 knowing that this had been the most amazing thing we had done in our nearly fifty years as a couple. Now back in Ottawa, we pray that someone might see this as an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others and themselves. It is a straightforward ministry asking only that you be present and accompany a community that takes you into its heart, and rewards you beyond measure.
The parish of St. Mary with St. Mark will be celebrating its 100-year anniversary on the weekend of July 9-10. The Maiers are planning to attend.