Arden Andreas, Tracey Banga and Joan Sparrow were among the speakers at
Diocesan Congress 2005 held at Queen’s House of Retreats.
Diocesan Congress speakers
describe realities of rural life
By Kiply Lukan Yaworski
A rural reality of losses and blessings, of declining population and small parishes,
was described by several speakers at the Diocesan Congress held Nov. 17 and 18 at
Queen’s House of Retreats in Saskatoon.
The presentations Nov. 17 provided priests, parish leaders, ministry coordinators
and members of the Diocesan Pastoral Council with snapshots about different aspects of
rural life: struggling farmers, fewer people to keep communities and parishes going, the
need to travel long distances for health care and children’s sporting events, as well as the
blessings of caring neighbors, involved parishioners and close-knit communities
“Our biggest challenge is that the cities keep trying to fix us,” said freelance
writer Joan Eyolfson Cadham of Foam Lake.
“Yes, everyone knows our population is dropping, and if farmers continue to earn
less than the cost of production we’re going to be losing more families this year,” she
said. “And somewhere along the way we lost our sense of who we were, so that children
in rural Saskatchewan are weaned to a mantra of ‘you will leave this dump, you will
leave this dump,’” she said.
However, the benefits and
blessings of rural life are many, asserted
Eyolfson Cadham, describing the “Foam
Lake advantage” for local children. “In
the last few months we’ve looked around
the globe and seen earthquakes,
tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, gang
violence, inner city ghettos -- and we
seem to be singing a new chorus.”
Joan Eyolfson Cadham
With smaller families and bigger farms, the population is in decline, and rural
areas have lost their schools, elevators and stores, she admitted. “But the communities
haven’t gone. Don’t let anyone tell you they have.” She described how small
communities in her area attract hundreds for special events such as fiddle contests and
“Our communities don’t have size, but what they do have is soul, and so do our
little churches,” she asserted “But consider the special strengths of a small congregation:
we’re all needed, we’re all called to service… we know one another and because we are
small, we have room for everyone. We laugh together, cry together, celebrate together
and when we pray for each other we do it because we care profoundly.”
She pointed out that rural areas invented practical ecumenism, with different
congregations supporting each other, combining efforts and even uniting for Bible study
“What do we want? We want to hang on to our little towns and tiny churches. We
want to be active vital parts of our own church congregation, not visitors in somebody
else’s church. We want to serve, not to be served,” she said.
She cited a recent talk by Bishop Michael Wiwchar of the Saskatoon eparchy in
which we spoke about centralization, rather than consolidation. It is a strategy to “keep
small parishes open, take turns, and have support. It means that people from the larger
centres also sometimes come out to the small parishes. It works both ways,” Eyolfson
Eyolfson Cadham was followed by a panel of presenters that included Arden
Andreas of Lancer, a farmer and former member of the Diocesan Pastoral Council; Tracy
Banga and Joan Sparrow of St. Francis parish in Vanscoy; Fr. Daniel Muyres, OSB,
pastor at Muenster and chaplain at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Humboldt; Lynda Statchuk,
Rural Catechetics coordinator in the Wadena area, and Rev. Ron Beechinor, vicar
general, and one of the first Priest Moderators in the diocese to work with a Parish Life
Director in collaborative ministry.
With declining population, one of the first and foremost problems in rural areas is
burnout, said Arden Andreas, a Lancer-area resident who recently led Foundations
sessions in the diocese of Saskatoon about agriculture and the church.
Communities are trying to keep the same number of groups and programs going
with fewer people, he described. The reality of traveling for services such as health care,
on roads that are not always great was also described by Andreas. Finances are often a
struggle for parishes, he added. In his area, several parishes share one priest, which is a
challenge both for the pastor and for the communities he serves.
A negative image of farmers persists, in spite of the fact that farming has never
been so high tech and farmers are constantly upgrading, Andreas said, adding that
farmers are often labeled as “whiners”, and receive little consideration for what truth lies
behind their complaints.
He spoke about the agricultural disaster, which is so often not on the radar screen
in urban areas or with government. “Nothing comes out of Ottawa or Regina,” he said,
describing the suffering of farm families :“ I think the backs are broken on a lot of
people,” he said. “A lot of people have just given up.”
Parishes remain vital for communities and for faith formation,” Andreas said,
noting that with a lack of Catholic schools in the rural areas “if we don’t have parishes
vibrant, and we don’t have catechism in our parishes we will be losing a lot.”
Joan Sparrow and Tracey Banga spoke of their experience as active community
and parish members in Vanscoy. As parents of children involved in a variety of
organizations, they described spending a lot of time on the road traveling to sporting
events and other activities. They also spoke about the struggles of a small rural parish
with only a dozen or so families, in which there are only a few people to call upon to
provide ministries and financial support.
Fr. Daniel Muyres described the decision to close the parish in Fulda five years
ago. “I never use that word closing when we’re dealing with a parish, I always use the
word joining,” he said, noting how this expresses the aspect of continuing and carrying
on in another community.
With about 28 families on the parish list, and an average of about 35 people
attending Mass on Sunday, it became more and more difficult to fill different ministries
at St. Joseph’s in Fulda, Muyres said. After some time of discussion, all families in the
parish were personally invited to attend a meeting on the issue. The community voted to
go ahead with closing the parish, and parishioners joined other parishes in the area. A
closing celebration was organized.
A comprehensive ministerial redistribution is needed in the diocese of Saskatoon,
according to Fr. Ron Beechinor, who shared his opinions as part of the rural ministry
Beechinor led a consultation process on ministerial redistribution five years ago.
“We’ve got to find out where we’re going to put our ministries and what those
ministries are going to be,” he said. “The question we have to ask is: there are 100
parishes in the diocese of Saskatoon – can we sustain that organization? In my opinion:
no, no, no. We have to look at that.”
Although the discussion cannot focus only on the availability of priests, the
declining numbers must be taken into account, he said. “We cannot continue to put one
priest in an area and give that person six parishes. That’s not fair to the priest and that’s
not fair to the people.”
“We know there are a number of parishes in the diocese that are on the verge of
closing,” he said. “ At some time, patience has got to give way to practicality.”
Beechinor said that in his opinion there is no sign of the present pattern of
declining vocations changing in the near future.
“The church that is developing in the diocese today based on collaborative
ministry is the church of the future, he said. “And it is not just a response to a negative.”
“When we bring priests and lay people together in collaborative ministry that is
not simply a response to a negative situation. It is bringing a new approach to ministry, a
new life to ministry, and a new availability of ministry into the live of the church.”
In addition to promoting vocations to priesthood and religious life, the diocese
must be “promoting and developing and recruiting vocations to lay ministry, vocation to
Parish Life Director... vocation to pastoral associate. That does not take away from our
vocation as a priest. It’s an addition to it,” Beechinor said. “And that vocation to being a
Parish Life Director is as good and as noble and as necessary as my vocation to being an
This collaborative ministry does not make for a “lesser church” he asserted,
reflecting on the time of his own ordination 44 years ago, when as a pastor he was
responsible for virtually all the ministry that happened in the parish.
“We are in a much healthier situation. We have more people – priests and laity –
bringing in good and dedicated ministry into the church with great, great enthusiasm and
great life. We are a better church, we are a healthier church.”
He advocated giving parishes the information and the tools to look at the question
on ministerial redistribution, and letting them come up with solutions, as they did five
“The voice of the people is very, very impressive.”
The rural panel also included Lynda Statchuk of the diocesan Rural Catechetics
office, who described a series of parent-child meetings which she and pastor Fr. Pius
Schroh designed and offered in four communities in 2004.
Later in the day, Cactus Lake
area farmer George Rolheiser spoke of
the joys and struggles of farm life.
“My grandfather, my dad and my
uncles were all farmers. I’m not sure
what’s going to happen after this.
Nobody is standing in line to take over,”
said Rolheiser, who described how from
his earliest recollection he wanted to be
“It starts out with the land, “ said
Rolheiser, sharing the story of the day
his dad got clear title to his farm after 35
years of work. “To own land is a
privilege and a responsibility. The land
doesn’t belong to us, we use it for
awhile. We are stewards.” George Rolhesier
Rolhesier conveyed the difficulties facing farmers. He recalled how during a rainy
harvest season someone asked him why the farmers were so grouchy. “I asked him ‘how
would you like it if it rained on your pay cheque and your pay cheque got smaller?’ He
said, “well I guess I wouldn’t like it.’ Well, we don’t like it either.”
Rolheiser described the life of a farmer in which there is a rush to get everything
done in a short growing season of about 100 days, trying to beat the frost, hoping the
weather will favor the crops.
To be involved in farming is to be close to nature, and close to God, Rolheiser
said. “It’s nothing short of a miracle to turn a bare field into a beautiful crop.”
However, years like this one – in which late rains “spoiled a very nice crop” – can
also test one’s faith, he said, listing the many things a farmer can’t control, including the
weather, prices, costs, and the value of land.
He cited a comparison between 1938 and 1998 prices showing that a farmer today
needs to sell eight times as much grain to have the same purchasing power that a farmer
had 60 years ago.
The blessings of neighbours, and of the satisfaction of a job well done were also
described by Rolheiser.
“Farming challenges us to be the best we can be.”