St. Paul’s Catholic Church is incorporating the Squamish language into the masses

St. Paul’s Indian Church is on a path of integration that combines Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Sníchim (Squamish language) and traditional knowledge with Roman Catholic doctrine and belief.

Led by Squamish Elder and Catholic Deacon Rennie Nahanee, the Church is holding Sunday masses in the Squamish language to decolonize the room and bring back to the Church those who may be disenfranchised from the religious institution.

The Catholic Parish in Eslha7an (Mission Reserve) of Squamish Nation on the north bank of Burrard Inlet was established in 1868. It is the oldest Catholic mission church in the Lower Mainland and a designated National Historic Site.

Nahanee believes that the Church can be a vessel for cultural revitalization and ongoing formation about the Squamish language and teachings.

“I believe that here you can learn our language, our culture, our customs and our dance in order to preserve and save all these things. Because this is an eternal institute, the Church. ”

Nahanee began to incorporate Squamish into his services for the first time at a funeral at the Chief Joe Mathias Center, where he held the Lord’s Prayer in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Sníchim.

He remembered feeling the immediate connection with those present; He is aware, however, that some may not understand what he is “trying to do” by incorporating the Squamish language into his services.

“Some of them are still angry with the boarding schools. You’re having an argument that started with our parents or grandparents, so some of that anger is passed on. ”

But Nahanee wants people to remember that it was their ancestors who were part of the original church.

“I’m not sure you realize this, but you worked in here,” he said. “When I was in elementary school, I saw this: elders from our ward work in the church, about 10 of them have various jobs. Uncle Louie always made people feel welcome … with a big smile, beautiful big, warm hands. ”

Nahanee recognizes, however, that the trauma and violence that the boarding school system has inflicted on indigenous communities is now calling many into question the role of the Catholic Church in healing.

“I see things on Facebook … someone asks, ‘Why should a native work in a church that has destroyed their culture?’ And I say because I’ve learned from my elders here, our community, and I respect them, and [I want to] continue the work they started. ”

Nahanee has looked both internationally, in places like India, and locally in the greater Vancouver area, where Catholic churches have incorporated traditional languages ​​and cultures.

“People who have [mass] being celebrated in their own culture and language, I think that way it becomes more alive, ”he said.

In St. Paul’s, traditional Catholic decorations are slowly being replaced to accommodate a stronger Squamish presence within the walls. The lilies that originally covered the architraves have now been replaced by repeating eyes of the Coast Salish, and the angels that hang over the altar are now adorned with ceilings.

Traditional Squamish songs and dances are also recorded, with Nahanee explaining how The Journey Song welcomes parishioners to Mass while recognizing those who are “no longer with us.”

“We greet the people who are here, and in a way we thank those who came before us for giving us our culture back.”

These moments of integration are also a way for Nahanee to bring his Squamish Catholic mentors back into the room and into the ministries he has created.

“I can still see them. I can still see their faces. And I’m sure you would smile now. ”

Part of decolonizing the church, Nahanee said, is to change the stories that are usually told in mass.

He acknowledged that Catholic teachings often speak of lambs and pigs and other animals not native to Squamish areas, and said that traditional stories that are geographically based make more sense.

“The great example is the good wolf and the bad wolf.

“A grandfather tells his grandson about two wolves who fight within themselves forever. The grandson asked: “Grandfather, which one wins? The good wolf or the bad wolf? ‘ And the grandfather says, ‘Whichever one you feed,’ ”he said. “That speaks a lot about good and bad in this little story. And we can relate to it because we know about wolves, we have songs about wolves, we have dances about wolves. ”

Bringing the Squamish language to the masses has been a personal journey for Nahanee as well, as he is learning the language himself while trying to bring it to church.

Working with Aaron Williams and other Squamish language teachers, Nahanee and his wife go to the Joe Mathias Center every Wednesday to learn drum songs and language.

“I want to do more than just throw in a word here and there. It’s a challenge for me because I’ve never really spoken the language before, but I always wanted to learn, “he says, laughing,” Now that I’ve brought it to church, I’m under pressure to admit it to learn.”

The next Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Sníchim Mass will take place on November 28th at 11 am in St. Paul’s Indian Church

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