By Eric Clayton
“My dad was the church organist,” remembers Rosella Kinoshameg. “He taught us how to play. That was one of things I took up. That was my involvement as far as the Church went. I don’t suppose we were allowed to participate in any other way. We didn’t do readings or anything like that.”
Rosella is Ojibwe, Odawa and lives on the Wikwemikong Unceded territory. And for many of her contemporaries growing up, the Catholic faith and their traditional culture were seen as incompatible.
“We were forbidden to do our ceremonies and speak in our language, and so a lot of people lost their language. Some still refuse to speak in the language, to believe in our traditions, our ceremonies.”
“And I said to myself, ‘How beautiful that is. It’s so good to pray in the language. I hope someday I can do that.’”
Fortunately for Rosella, her father didn’t see Catholicism and tradition as conflicting ways of life. “He was a very spiritual man,” she says. “He played the organ in church and did ceremonies at home.” She smiles, remembering: “We used to observe some of those ceremonies — you know how children are very curious.”
One particular Sunday, at a Pow Wow, Rosella recalls seeing an Elder get up to do the invocation. “And he prayed in the language.”
She was struck by this, by hearing these prayers in her own language. “And I said to myself, ‘How beautiful that is. It’s so good to pray in the language. I hope someday I can do that.’”
Rosella’s hopes became a reality. And this reality is represented by the work and legacy of the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre.
“I tell people, ‘That’s my second home,’” Rosella says. “I really feel a sense of belonging.”
“It is one of the truly spiritual homes of the Jesuits of Canada,” says Fr. Gerry McDougal, SJ, who has spent a large part of his Jesuit life working alongside Indigenous communities. “It was built originally to serve the formation of Indigenous deacons, priests and lay ministers in the emerging Anishinabe Catholic Church.”
A Dialogue of Spiritualities
The roots of the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre lie in the ministry training program Jesuit priests Michael Murray, SJ, Dan Hannin, SJ, James Farrell, SJ, and Lawrence Kroker, SJ, began in 1972. Coinciding with a global revival of the spiritual and cultural traditions of Indigenous peoples and the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, it was the goal of these Jesuit priests to equip Indigenous leaders with the tools needed to serve the local church, particularly as deacons.
“Some of the early deacons were not educated beyond high school but were endowed with many spiritual gifts, especially great faith,” Fr. McDougal says. “So, it was about giving people the confidence to go up in front of their communities and minister to the people.”
The education, though, went both ways.
“They learned a lot from the Indigenous ministry trainees themselves about spirituality,” Fr. McDougal says. “So, for example, learning about the medicine wheel and how it is applied to Catholic spirituality. There was a lot of dialogue.”
The First Nations and the Jesuits had a champion in the person of the local bishop.
“In the Sault Sainte Marie Diocese, we had a real Vatican II bishop, Alexander Carter, who was really supportive of the new Jesuit work of bringing this revival into the church,” Fr. McDougal says.
“I was quite amazed by what Bishop Carter had on his mind at the time when he was working with the First Nations people and the Jesuits,” Rosella recalls. “I didn’t know what the vision was, but when I was reading this history, what he had written — ‘To encourage the Native people to rediscover their roots and to value their own culture and the beauty of their ceremonies’ — I said, ‘Wow.’”
“They learned a lot from the Indigenous ministry trainees themselves about spirituality,” Fr. McDougal says.
Some years later, after the local Jesuit province had purchased an old resort to give a permanent home to the Indigenous ministry training program — what would become the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre — it would fall to Rosella as chair of the board to help crystalize a new vision.
For an Indigenous-Led Church
“Waase’aandimikaaning was the Ojibwe name that was given to the place, a place of enlightenment, a place for spiritual nourishment, growth and healing,” she explains, knowing that a deeper understanding of the place better positioned her and her colleagues to articulate a mission.
“Waase’aandimikaaning provides opportunities to find our Creator within self, others, and in all creation, as guided and inspired by our ancestors, Elders and Jesuit tradition.”
From this sense of mission came a renewed commitment to values: “We value respect and dignity, community, hospitality, healing and reconciliation, dialogue, ecology, education, arts, and health.”
And those values reminded Rosella and her colleagues of those deep roots from which the Centre had grown. “And so, we talked about continuing with the Anishinabe leadership formation program for deacons” and other leaders within the community, says Rosella.
“‘It should have an Ojibwe name to it,’” Rosella remembers someone saying. “So, we called it Damigong Bimiikaadwining — a calling to service, that’s what the name means.”
The Anishinabe Spiritual Centre isn’t just a ministry training program; there are youth activities and opportunities to get away on retreat, as well as a focus on sharing health information. Rosella, a nurse, has worked on a program for diabetes awareness and prevention.
But the heart of the Centre is the promotion of an Indigenous vision of the Church.
“The goal of the ministries program is that in a few years’ time there will be all Indigenous people leading the program, leading the Church,” Fr. McDougal says. “Other Jesuits and I are very happy to support as much as the Indigenous Church needs, but eventually I think there’ll be fewer Jesuits.
“Waase’aandimikaaning was the Ojibwe name that was given to the place, a place of enlightenment, a place for spiritual nourishment, growth and healing.”
“We’re part of a 2,000-year-old Church,” he continues. “The Church has always been a church in process.” There are many things we take for granted, but “they didn’t exist at the beginning of the Church; they came in somewhere in the middle, as the Church was moving from one culture to another.
“There’s a declining number of priests,” Fr. McDougal says. “The last Indigenous man formed through the Centre to be a deacon was ordained in 1994. But there are a lot of women, who are really the backbone of the Church.”
Recognizing this reality, the local bishop has given a number of women a mandate as ministers.
This includes “leading a communion service, giving a homily or a reflection on the readings, and they also lead funeral services and wakes,” Fr. McDougal says.
Rosella has been given such a mandate. She leads funeral services and passes on traditions to the next generation.
“I teach them the language, how to pray in the language, how to sing in the language. It means so much more to be able to sing in the language,” Rosella reflects. “There’s a big difference between English and the language, and I don’t know, it goes in deeper.”
Fr. Carl Starkloff , SJ, an American Jesuit and Professor of Theology at Regis College, Toronto, spent many years teaching at the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre. Inspired by the reflections and testimonies shared by the Indigenous community, he, along with Rosella Kinoshameg and 39 others, began work on an Indigenized version of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. After three years, a book was produced: The Quest for Spiritual Wisdom.