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‘We need to own our past’: Catholic parishioners reflect on discovery of unmarked graves

Click to play video: 'Catholic parishioners reflect on discovery of unmarked graves' Catholic parishioners reflect on discovery of unmarked graves
WATCH: As Cowessess First Nation grapples with the findings of unmarked graves, so do Roman Catholics, with many feeling shame, embarrassment and anger for the harm and abuse the church caused – Jun 28, 2021

From guilt and embarrassment to anger and resentment, many Catholics say they are sharing in the grief following the discovery of an estimated 751 unmarked graves on Cowessess First Nation.

Leah McDonald Perrault, a Catholic parishioner who lives in Swift Current, says the reality of residential schools and the role the Catholic Church played in operating them can be a tough pill to swallow for some.

Between sex abuse scandals, certain leadership mistakes and residential school findings, she says it’s been hard to maintain Catholic membership.

“It’s not an easy time to be a Catholic,” she said.

“People are tired. But I would say that pales in comparison to the exhaustion that our Indigenous community feels.

Read more: Doors of Saskatoon Catholic church covered in paint after news of unmarked graves

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The Roman Catholic Church operated many residential schools across the country, including Marieval Indian Residential School, which was located on what is now Cowessess First Nation.

For centuries, McDonald Perrault says Christianity and Catholicism have been tied to cultural colonialism. She says it will take years to cut those ties and reconcile the hurt the Catholic Church caused Indigenous families.

“It isn’t Catholic at all, but Catholics did it and they did it in the name of the church and they used the gospel to justify it. And they were wrong,” she said.

McDonald Perrault says Catholics need to accept responsibility for residential schools, repent and start the journey of reconciliation, which begins with listening.

“This is not easy work we’re asking people to sign up for and I hope it will get the attention that it deserves,” she said.

“I hope people are ready to do the work.”

Read more: Catholic confidence in church wavers after residential school grave discoveries

Gwen Barschel says she was horrified and heartbroken when she learned of the unmarked graves on Cowessess First Nation. She says Catholics need to admit what happened and honour those lost, adding she, too, feels a sense of guilt.

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“Because it’s my religion, it’s my faith and the greater majority of these schools were run by the Catholic Church, I do feel a little bit of that,” she said.

However, through consultations with Indigenous communities, the head of the Archdiocese of Regina says he’s learned Catholic parishioners should not dwell on the guilt and shame that they feel.

“That’s not the place to land. It’s something to feel and experience, but there is an invitation out there to be engaged,” Archbishop Don Bolen said.

Click to play video: 'Cowessess First Nation holds vigil for residential school victims' Cowessess First Nation holds vigil for residential school victims
Cowessess First Nation holds vigil for residential school victims – Jun 27, 2021

Many Catholic churches across the province offered up prayers for Cowessess First Nation in the first Sunday Mass since that community announced the findings of unmarked graves.

Bolen says the Catholic Church’s past is complicated and messy, adding it’s been slow to change the narrative.

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“It’s pretty heavy,” Bolen said.

“We should never have got involved in residential schools and the abuse that took place in those schools is such a contradiction to anything that is right and good.”

The archbishop says he plans to prepare a letter for parishioners in the coming days, which will offer up guidance on how individuals can join in reconciliation.

Read more: ‘It’s a criminal act’: Prominent B.C. Interior Indigenous leader condemns church fires

“We need to own our past,” he said.

“Enter into a relationship with Indigenous people wherever there’s an opening and an opportunity to do that and get educated.”

While Bolen has been working with Cowessess First Nation and Indigenous peoples for years to help build stronger relationships, in the last week he’s learned there is a need for a greater sense of urgency. He says now is the time for justice, reconciliation and fulfilling the TRC’s Calls to Action.

“This isn’t one of 20 priorities right now. This is the major priority.”

Bolen has offered up another apology to Cowessess First Nation in light of the recent discovery. He’s also pledging to turn an apology into “meaningful, concrete acts,” which includes helping the First Nation access records to identify those buried in the graves.

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