The recent discovery of approximately 1,500 children's bodies buried on the grounds of multiple former residential schools for Canada’s indigenous people has shaken the country to its core. Beginning as early as 1831, indigenous children were separated from their families and placed in government-sanctioned schools where their native culture, language, and spirituality were systematically suppressed. Many of these children suffered from physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse. Seventy percent of these residential schools in Canada were run by the Catholic Church.
St. Ann’s Church, a Holy Cross parish in Toronto, is the home of the Native People’s Mission for the Archdiocese of Toronto. Fr. Wilson Andrade, C.S.C., who serves as Pastor and Administrator of the Mission since 2013, has deeply felt the impact of this tragedy.
“I was heartbroken and deeply saddened to learn of the discovery of graves at the Kamloops Residential School,” said Fr. Andrade. “I continue to grieve in solidarity with all those people who are feeling sorrow and hurt and I am committed to joining with them in mutual respect on the path of healing.”
With his specialized ministry and experience, Fr. Andrade has been invited by Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, to assist the Archdiocese in the path of reconciliation and healing from this dark stain on the Church’s legacy. In response to the public outcry against the government and Church, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) issued a formal apology on September 24 for the Church’s involvement in this tragedy. In addition, the CCCB has pledged $30 million to support residential school survivors, their families, and their communities.
In May 2021, Fr. Andrade, in collaboration with the native Elders of his parish, proposed to the bishops seven recommendations for healing and reconciliation. The CCCB is now considering adopting these recommendations as part of its national strategy.
On September 26, the parish commemorated at its weekly Native People’s Mass, Canada’s newly instituted National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a federal statutory holiday commemorated for the first time this year on 30 September. Like every Sunday, Fr. Andrade celebrated the Mass which begins with a purification ceremony conducted by an Ojibway Elder. The Mass traditionally incorporates various aspects of the native culture into the Liturgy, with most of the prayers being said in the Ojibway language.
The following day, Fr. Andrade planned and attended a Native Prayer Service at St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica where Cardinal Thomas Collins presided for the first time ever with the Elders of the native community.
Although reconciliation is an arduous journey, Fr. Andrade sees his ministry as a blessing and is grateful for the support he has received from the Elders, church leaders, and members of Parliament who are aware of the vital ministry at St. Ann’s and its particular outreach to people of all races and ethnic backgrounds. Fr. Andrade believes that it is only through God’s grace that healing can occur.
“I believe that the discovery of these graves of the children touches the core of our hearts. And so, we ask the Creator God for healing with forgiveness from all, to be grounded in our faith, to stand together in listening and learning, to hold each other in mutual respect, and to continue walking with care and love,” he said.