By MegAnne Liebsch
Growing up on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Rosella Kinoshameg didn’t understand the Catholic Masses she attended each Sunday. This was pre-Vatican II, and the priest still faced away from the congregation, reciting the Mass in Latin. All readings and hymns were transcribed in English, not her native Ojibwe. Except for a few Ojibwe hymns that the congregation sang, little of her Jesuit-run parish reflected the culture and traditions of the Native people that it served.
Thanks in part to Kinoshameg’s leadership, the Jesuit approach to Native ministry has shifted notably over the course of her life. Now, through organizations such as the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre and Kateri Native Ministry, Jesuits and Indigenous partners are re-envisioning methods for spiritual accompaniment that recognize Indigenous leaders and honour Native traditions.
“We have to appreciate Indigenous, wholesome values of culture and language,” says Kinoshameg. “When I think of my culture and our traditions, and then to bring the Church into it, it enhances my learning and my understanding and my spirituality.”
Quoting Fr. Paul Robson, SJ, Kinoshameg continues, “Our vision is of a thriving, fully active Anishinaabe Catholic Church with enculturation of the faith, for the culture and spirituality of the people to be valued, promoted, [and] integrated into faith and practice of the Church.”
Throughout much of the Church and Jesuits’ interactions with the First Nations of Ontario, the values of enculturation and integration were often neglected. The Jesuits first arrived in Anishinaabe territories in the mid-17th century, and they have been providing religious guidance to the people of Manitoulin Island since 1844. During a significant portion of this history, the Jesuits’ approach, mirroring that of the wider Church, placed a strong emphasis on their own authority within parish administration and education. The input of the Indigenous community was seldom considered. Many Jesuit ministries working with Indigenous peoples adopted a colonial mindset that regarded Indigenous ways of life as inferior, aiming to replace them with Christian and Canadian values.
As a child, Kinoshameg was taught that her Indigenous identity must remain separate from her Catholic faith. At eight years old, she was sent to a residential school, run by an order of nuns but affiliated with the Jesuits who ran the nearby St. Peter Claver School for Boys. There she received her primary education, but she was forbidden from participating in any traditional Anishinaabe practices. Corporal punishment was common.
As a child, Kinoshameg was taught that her Indigenous identity must remain separate from her Catholic faith. At eight years old, she was sent to a residential school, run by an order of nuns but affiliated with the Jesuits who ran the nearby St. Peter Claver School for Boys.
Nearly all of Kinoshameg’s siblings attended Catholic residential schools, and the experience profoundly shaped them. Some internalized a shame of their Indigenous heritage. One sister denied she was Anishinaabe, asking their parents to only visit her under the cover of darkness, so that her neighbours wouldn’t see that her parents were Native.
Today, the Jesuits of Canada are committed to repairing the relationships broken by residential schools and paternalistic ministries. Starting with Vatican II, some Jesuits became interested in empowering Native leadership in the Church and with the help of elders began integrating Indigenous languages, customs, and spirituality into Catholic rites.
“That’s when [the Jesuits] started shifting to a sense of partnership in Indigenous ministry,” says Fr. Peter Bisson, SJ, who formerly served as provincial of English Canada. Jesuits also began working closely with Native leaders advocating on various social and environmental justice issues.
It was around this time, in the early 1980s, that Kinoshameg began volunteering with the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre, based in Espanola, Ontario. The Centre offers directed retreats and spiritual formation programs — many of which are designed specifically for First Nations. In Anishinaabemowin, the Centre is named Wassean-Dimi-Kaning — The Place of Enlightening. Its flagship program, the Anishinabe Leadership Formation Program for Deacons and Diocesan Order Service, grounds Native leaders in Indigenous practices while training them for the diaconate or diocesan order (for women).
“This was to encourage First Nations to become leaders in their faith communities, which I thought was really, really good,” Kinoshameg says. “What [the Centre] wanted to do was to encourage the Native people to rediscover their roots and to value their own culture and the beauties of some of their ceremonies and early traditions.”
“What [the Centre] wanted to do was to encourage the Native people to rediscover their roots and to value their own culture and the beauties of some of their ceremonies and early traditions.”
The trauma of residential schools had separated many First Nations people from their traditional cultures. Few ceremonial practices were passed to younger generations, so Kinoshameg developed a 10-month course pairing Indigenous spiritual instruction with formation in Catholic and Ignatian spirituality. She taught how to perform different ceremonies, such as tobacco offering, and invited other elders to teach topics with which she wasn’t familiar.
This transformation in ministry approach didn’t happen overnight. When reports of abuse at St. Peter Claver residential school began to surface in the 1990s, it forced the Jesuits to “review the stories that we told about ourselves and become aware of our participation in the colonial project,” says Fr. Bisson.
Fr. Bisson led the Jesuits of English Canada during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and participated in many listening sessions with survivors of residential school systems. The TRC spurred another inflection point in the Jesuit understanding of shared ministry with Native peoples. Through painful and frank conversations, Fr. Bisson came to see that it wasn’t just Indigenous communities that needed accompaniment — it was the Jesuits.
“That was transformative, and a sense of partnership at an experiential level started to emerge,” explains Fr. Bisson.
From those conversations grew a province-wide effort to center right relationship with Indigenous communities across all sectors — education, social justice initiatives, parish ministry, etc. Now Fr. Bisson represents the province as the assistant for Justice, Ecology, & Indigenous Relations, working to decolonize Jesuit ministry.
With the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the former site of Kamloops Residential School in 2021, the wounds uncovered during the TRC remain fresh. Kinoshameg says some of her friends and community members on Manitoulin Island have considered leaving the Church.
“There is still a lot of hurt,” says Kinoshameg. “There’s a lot of anger, there’s a lot of blame, there’s a lot of intergenerational trauma, and there’s a lot of work to be done.”
It is in this work that Kinoshameg and Fr. Bisson see progress. Unlike her childhood, Kinoshameg now sees her culture reflected in Mass. One Jesuit she knows is learning Ojibwe and is hoping to translate the Bible into Ojibwe.
“I think the Jesuits look to me, and they’ve asked me for my opinion, but the Church also has to let Indigenous people make our own decisions. We have a voice.”
More importantly, though, there is now honest dialogue between Jesuits and Native leaders. “That’s a sign of friendship,” says Fr. Bisson.
“I think that’s a great honor, to be called a friend,” Kinoshameg adds. “I think the Jesuits look to me, and they’ve asked me for my opinion, but the Church also has to let Indigenous people make our own decisions. We have a voice.”