These warm July days remind me of a very special northern summer I spent with Catholic Oblate priest René Fumoleau at a strategic time of transition and transformation in my life.
I had joined about two dozen other “southern” Canadians to participate in one of René’s Denendeh Seminar learning events almost 30 years ago. We saw a lot of the upper Mackenzie River (known locally as Deh Cho), lived on the land, met many Dene First Nation people and other northerners in and around Yellowknife and attended the Dene National Assembly (an annual gathering of the regional Aboriginal clans) held that year in Hay River.
Canada is a large country. It needs a broad spirituality to encompass its vast diversity. I began thinking in new ways that have intrigued me ever since and now would like to share some insights I began constructing for myself at that time.
We need to grow in our ability to engage and learn from people that are different from ourselves, René would say. He used his own life experience as a case in point. Born in the city of Vendee, which is located in a region of southern Brittany and northern Loire, he spoke the local Celtic dialect until he learned French in public school. He graduated from seminary knowing few non-Catholics and, unaware of much about the geography or people of the western Arctic, joined the missionary Order of Mary Immaculate to bring the gospel to the “sauvages” of northern Canada. He settled in this place “at the end of the earth” because few other Europeans desired to live there.
It took him some years to realize that God had preceded him to a location not so desolate if you got to know it. He found that many of the people there had a closer relationship to the divine that he had ever encountered in Europe. The more he listened and learned from the Dene, the more he grew in his own understanding of what life was all about.
Fumoleau taught that not only could one learn, but also lead from the margins. He shared truths that we had ignored or were distracted from in the more “civilized” regions of Canada. His writings about the treaties and of Dene ways proved very enlightening to folks all over the world. Only gradually have we Canadians started learning that the stone, which the builders rejected, could actually be the cornerstone (Ps. 118:22).
All of this provided me with one of the pivotal discoveries of my life. That is: the universal can be found in the particular. The more I came to know and appreciate people in local situations, the more likely I was to gain an understanding of what applied everywhere. I found this essential wisdom in a place neglected by most everyone.
René Fumoleau, now approaching age 90, continues to live in Denendeh.
He remains an ecumenical spiritual guide for many. I hope to send him a copy of this writing to remind him of important lessons he taught me.
René Fumoleau, bio and resources:
Wayne A. Holst continues to teach religion and culture at the University of Calgary and helps to co-ordinate adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church in Calgary.