Fr. Paradis a trailblazer in reconciliation


Fr. Paradis a trailblazer in reconciliation

Pictured left: François Paradis, OMI in Clementine Hall of St. Peter’s Basilica, established by Pope Clement VIII to honour Pope Clement I. The Oblate will be honoured with Catholic Missions in Canada’s St. Philip Neri Award at the annual Tastes of Heaven Gala May 9.

Fr. François Paradis, an Oblate of Mary Immaculate (OMI) who will receive this year’s Catholic Missions In Canada’s (CMIC) St. Philip Neri Award for providing compassionate and community-oriented missionary service, is known by two spirit names bestowed upon him by Indigenous Elders.

Early into what would end up being 17 years (1983-2000) of providing priestly ministry to Sagkeeng First Nation and surrounding Ojibwa communities in southern Manitoba, Paradis met with an Elder named Jack Starr and gifted him tobacco. A week later, Paradis and his missionary colleague, Sr. Margaret Sadler of the Sisters of the Child Jesus, participated in a pipe ceremony with Starr.

“I could follow some of his prayers because of the language I knew,” recalled the 77-year-old who was ordained a Catholic priest in 1972. “He was praying for me and my ministry, and then he gave me my first spirit name, which was ‘Black Wolf.’ ”

Paradis asked Starr about why he chose Black Wolf.

“He said ‘it is up to you to find out,’ ” said Paradis with a chuckle.

Upon reflection, Paradis came to interpret the Black Wolf as “the general — the one who stays behind but leads the pack.”

Later, during a sweat-lodge ceremony, another Indigenous Elder (Paradis can’t recall her name) declared that he be called the “Whitehead Eagle flying from the East.”

One week later, the Elder’s granddaughter approached Paradis to say she thought she knew the meaning behind the spirit name. She relayed the story of the community rebuilding the Fort Alexander Roman Catholic Church in Sagkeeng after it burned down in 1980.

“She said she saw an eagle fly through the big round window of (the new church),” said Paradis. “Anything coming from the East means a new beginning or opening. (A) White-head Eagle flying from the East means one who opens new ways.”

His efforts to promote interreligious dialogue exemplify his Black Wolf and Whitehead Eagle attributes at work. Participating in numerous sweat lodges, Sun Dance rites, traditional fasts and pipe ceremonies was entirely novel as a Catholic priest. Still, he also led from the back by ensuring the Ojibwa Elders and community members commanded centre stage.

From 2003 to 2007, Paradis served as pastor of Kateri Tekakwitha Aboriginal Parish. In that role, he began to hear positive appraisals about the reconciliation workshops the Indigenous-led non-profit organization Returning to Spirit (RTS) delivered.

Paradis felt called to become involved. In January 2007, he earned his certification as a RTS trainer. In 2008, he devoted all his ministerial efforts to co-leading seminars.

“When we talk about a Returning to Spirit workshop, it is about who you are — the spirit in which you were created,” said Paradis. “It has nothing to do with the Holy Spirit. We’re really in the line of personal development and personal awareness. (It is) about being aware of the pain and the events that may have crippled you — we all have them — when you were young. Those events may be keeping you stuck today. They may prevent you from being who you were fully meant to be and make you afraid, feeling like no one loves you or you don’t belong.”

For Indigenous people, Paradis said the crippling event for many was a residential school. Some had to formulate coping and survival strategies that stifled their true essence.

Non-Indigenous Canadians have also participated in RTS workshops. The journey often begins with the one-day Seeds of Reconciliation in-person or virtual workshop that familiarizes participants with the reconciliation conversation process. The Roots of Reconciliation, a four-day experience, is perhaps RTS’s bedrock workshop. Trainers and knowledge keepers accompany attendees as they uncover the behaviours, assumptions and judgments that keep them in a thought pattern inhibiting self-empowerment and reconciliation.

Paradis said work still needs to be done “to convince non-Indigenous people that they have a major role to play in reconciliation. It is not just about First Nations people.”

Lisa Raven, an Anishinaabe woman of Hollow Water First Nation, is RTS’ executive director. She became a trainer at the same time as Paradis. She lauds her colleague and friend’s wisdom and genuineness.

“François holds a wealth of knowledge,” said Raven. “The way that he relates to Indigenous people is through ceremony. François is a Sundancer, he’s a pipe carrier and he holds two sacred names. He brings forward that aspect. He had been engaging in ceremonies long before they became popular. In fact, maybe it was even questioned at that time. Now, he’s a real pioneer. Indigenous people recognize that and see that as authentic.

“Another powerful aspect is him being a priest,” continued Raven, “and belonging to the Missionary Oblates, which ran most residential schools here in Manitoba and probably across Canada. Him being part of reconciliation is not only him speaking for himself, but he also represents that and sits in proxy for a lot of Indigenous people who need to reconcile, and maybe specifically with the Missionary Oblates, priests or males.”

Raven said a powerful action Paradis completes during each workshop is reading the written apology to the First Nations of Canada from Fr. (now Hamilton Bishop) Douglas Crosby, OMI, on behalf of all the Canadian Oblates. This apology was read on July 24, 1991, by Crosby, then the president of the Oblate Conference, at the Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage in Alberta.

Akin to his previous service roles, RTS represents a fusion between his Black Wolf and Whitehead Eagle flying from the East identities. He honours the former by supporting, rather than steering, participants in their journey towards self-discovery and reconciliation. Once again, Paradis — and his colleagues — is a trailblazer for leading reconciliation workshops 14 years before the transformative year the reconciliation movement experienced in 2021.

Paradis will receive the St. Philip Neri Award at Catholic Missions In Canada’s annual Tastes of Heaven Gala on May 9 at Bellevue Manor in Vaughan, Ont.

By Quinton Amundson

Published on The Catholic Register website