John is friendly, talkative, colorful and full of stories. He wears his Oblate identity with a sense of pride and fills the room with his warm smile. His conversation is equally expressive in his facial expressions as in his spirited words.
Born in Peterborough, Ontario, John has spent all of his priesthood (from 1974) in the West. His first assignment was to St. Mary’s Parish in Prince George, followed by ten years in the Caribou (near Williams Lake) among the Shuswap people. After a sabbatical year he was transferred to the Western side of the Fraser river to minister with the Chilcotin peoples. In 1995, after a letter that explained why he should not be assigned to St. Augustine’s Parish in Vancouver, and succeeded Joe Rossiter, OMI, as pastor (which extended to fifteen years). He presently serves as pastor at St. Paul’s in North Vancouver, and is superior of the BC District.
After high school there was a brief period of working with Crowley Films in Ottawa who were in the process of working on an animation film, ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ He also worked for a brief time at the National Museum in Ottawa and can point to several projects that he helped to construct. This was a very healthy exposure to animation leading to attendance at the College of Art in the hope of becoming an illustrator.
In 1966 he experienced a profound call to religious life that “took me right out of school. It was my Mother who pointed me to the Oblates and when I walked into Holy Rosary Scholasticate for a retreat I knew that I belonged.”
His time in the Caribou was challenging, but life giving. The people of Alkali Lake had reached the point of collapse and disintegration. “There was only one way to go and that was up! My ministry fitted in as I walked with the people as they reached out for sobriety and serenity. This was a time when they reached back to grab a hold of their own spirituality and their culture. The experience of the people of Alkali Lake spread throughout the Shuswap region, and reached out to the larger Canadian community, reaching even Australia.” Both hands a clasped on his chest. “This was a real journey with the people and yet when I first came it was awful.”
His next assignment was to the West side of the Fraser River with the Chillcotin peoples. These were part of the Dene people and culture who spoke a different language. “These were ten years in one of the most beautiful parts of British Columbia.
This was followed by a term as pastor at St. Augustine’s Parish in Vancouver, and then after fifteen years of ministry he took a sabbatical year by picking up his art studies at Victoria College of Art. He is now pastor of St. Paul’s, a First Nations parish on the North Shore (Vancouver). While challenging in a some ways it allows for some connection with the art world.
Reflecting on his experience over the years, John says, “We need to learn from each other. There must be a deep conversion and renewal among the people. The arts can serve us well here. These are a people who are very creative and musical.” He can understand the difficulties these people face in such a dominant urban environment. “How do we keep our identity?”
He shakes his head when asked about his identity as an Oblate. “I am proud of being an Oblate even when we know we have made some serious errors. We cannot talk of the history of BC without talking about the Oblates and the Sisters who made such an impact. I am proud to carry on with my brothers; happy to be a priest, to be an Oblate. I have an optimistic outlook and have energy to do what I can.”
By Nestor Gregoire, OMI