ATTAWAPISKAT – My home community of Attawapiskat on the James Bay coast had a tragic loss recently with the passing of Father Rodrigue Vézina, Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate (OMI) who passed from this life in Richelieu, Quebec on October 29, 2019, at the age of 87 years. Father Vezina had served the diocese of Moosonee for 54 years with 43 years of that time at our St Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Attawapiskat.
Many people were saddened when he retired from his position in our community in the summer of 2015. Even though he had left, many still took time from their annual religious pilgrimages in southern Quebec to visit Father Vezina in his retirement.
He holds a very special place in our community. He arrived as a young man in 1973 after having quickly learned to fluently speak the Cree language of the James Bay dialect. Our Elders and community members appreciated his ability to have such a great command of the language. Local Elders addressed him as Noo-tah-wee-noo (father) and as children we were taught to do the same.
He helped to organize the building of a short wave broadcast channel for our local church. The signal provided our small community with a local television channel that gave us a live feed of the church service. At the same time, Father Vezina used it as an opportunity to communicate with us every day.
Every morning while we had breakfast, we would view him broadcast some short announcements on blank white paper sheets and in marker he had written out for the screen. It was the audio that was most important as he started the daily broadcast with a short series of prayers and then would read out from his records the births of community members, the marriages and the deaths of people who had passed long ago. My parents Marius and Susan and the other Elders in the community loved to be reminded of these important events from our lives.
Father Vezina was there to baptize us at the start of our lives and then again for many at the end of life. We saw him every week on Sunday and as we grew older, he gave us lessons at the local Parish hall next to the church to prepare us for our first communion and Catholic confirmation. He was such a patient teacher as he had to do his best to keep the attention of classes of a dozen or so rowdy young boys and girls.
My parents encouraged me and my brothers to take part in assisting the priest as alter boys and this meant we spent many evenings preparing for services. I can recall participating in many services with my younger and older brothers and many of my friends. We did not always understand in detail what was happening but it felt good to be helping out this kind and enthusiastic priest.
Father Vezina touched on so many important parts of our lives in the community. He shared in our joys when children were born and were baptized. He celebrated with the community during every school graduation event. Everyone remembers a wedding he preceded over for many families in the community.
He was also an important connection to our Elders who had held a strong faith to the Catholic religion for their entire lives. In their old age, many Elders could no longer attend regular church services but Father Vezina made the rounds during the week to visit every Elder that wanted to receive their regular communion. Yes it was all about religion but in fact Father Vezina was also about community and a lifelong commitment to his friends in Attawapiskat.
Father Vezina also shared our darkest moments with us and helped to get many of us through difficult times. He was a priest but also a social worker and advocate for the people. He wore many hats.
He was such an integral part of our community that we named our first-ever secondary school after him. He was surprised to have been given this honour and he was there front row center when the Vezina Secondary School opened in the early 1990s.
Sadly, his passing comes at a time when the church has decided to demolish our historic St Francis Xavier Catholic Church. Engineers have declared the structure unsafe and plans are being put forward to construct a new church.
In our chaotic world of troubles, frustrations and difficulties, Father Vezina was one source of stability we could always count on. Even with all the troubles that the Catholic Church had historically inflicted on our Elders, our parents and grandparents, Father Vezina gave us a different perspective on the Catholic organization. He affirmed our faith in something greater than ourselves. He was a friend to our Elders and he was a source of goodness and love that we could share with one another. He left behind a powerful legacy of dedication, love and devotion for our small community and that did not have so much to do with religion as it was more about this very good man and his honorable deeds.
Kitchi-Meegwetch Noo-tah-wee-noo (Thank You Father).