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After 27 years, Bishop Croteau prepares to retire

Terry Kruger
Northern News Services
Monday, August 6, 2007

YELLOWKNIFE - In his quiet corner office, Bishop Denis Croteau reflects on 21 years as the leader of the Catholic Church in the Northwest Territories.

NNSL Photo/Graphic

Bishop Denis Croteau celebrates mass in April 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II. Croteau turns 75 years old in October and will hand over the Mackenzie Diocese to a new Bishop, Fr. Murray Chatlain. Croteau says he has no plans to leave the North and is prepared to serve the new bishop in any capacity required. - NNSL file photo

A lot has changed, he said, reminiscing about travelling by dog team to minister at remote bush camps and how the mail used to come just 10 times a year.

Construction of the Mackenzie Highway and the development that opened up the North brought many changes.

"The North went from the stone age to the atomic age in a generation or two," he said. "There have been pluses and minuses."

In October, Croteau turns 75 and under church law must retire.

He will hand over the Mackenzie diocese to 44-year-old Murray Chatlain, now serving as pastor of St. Patrick's parish in Saskatoon, Sask.

Born in Thetford Mines, Quebec in 1932, Croteau was ordained in 1958 in Drummondville, Que.

Croteau isn't leaving the North, and said he will serve the new bishop in any way required, but he said he's handing over a strong, vibrant church that has changed with the times.

"The people were exposed to the outside world, which brought a change in mentality.

There were new influences, like alcohol and now drugs that brought about a dysfunctional society and dysfunctional families."

Croteau came North as a young priest in 1960, serving in Fort Rae for four years.

After a year in Rome, then four years as parish priest in Fort McMurray, he returned to the NWT in 1969 to work as director of Grandin College.

Before being consecrated Bishop on June 8, 1986 in Rae-Edzo (now Behchoko), Croteau spent a decade in Inuvik and two years as parish priest in Fort Smith.

Along the way, the "old way of being a priest" has changed, with the church being put into the hands of its parishioners.

In 1960, the diocese boasted 62 oblate priests, 40 serving brothers and 112 sisters. Today, there are seven priests, one brother and about seven sisters.

"It forced us, the official church, to trust the people," he explained.

These days, people performing readings in church and help with communion. In some communities lay ministers do everything but say mass or perform the sacrament of reconciliation.

"Church life has switched from priest to lay people," said Croteau. "The church was the power. The priest was the kingpin of society."

Helping train people to be leaders in the church is made possible in part due to construction of the bishop's proudest accomplishment: Trappers Lake Spirituality Centre.

On the outskirts of Yellowknife, the collection of cabins and meeting rooms hosts marriage preparation courses and much more.

There have also been difficult times and disappointments.

He hired a historian to write a history of the church in the North, but only four chapters were completed before the professor became sick and was unable to complete the work.

The residential school crisis has also taken its toll.

"As bishop, I could not come forward," said Croteau.

While he knows some people were traumatized by their experiences, Croteau also said others comment regularly that they appreciate the education they have received.

The church is also working to help former residential school students overcome the pain of the past in a program that's starting to spread across the country. In an intense program, participants work to "stop the blame," said Croteau. It's offered whenever there are enough people to take part.

"You look at yourself and take ownership of your life and build a future."

For his future, Croteau says he will remain in the North to continue to help the new bishop keep the Catholic church strong.

"The church is stronger in a sense that the people have taken ownership, but at the same time the church is weak because lay people don't have the knowledge to do the job."

He hopes to continue working to develop understanding of the Bible.

"I have taken as a main goal to teach Catholic education, adult education in faith."

He hopes to do that by visiting the communities where he can work with the people.