‘It was the Mission’: A spiritual hub remembered in Behchokǫ̀

The Old Mission House as it stands today. (Photo courtesy of Agnes Beaulieu)

“Ever since I was old enough to walk to church I’ve been going to church, at that Mission (house), and then the big church on Sunday,” says Leon Lafferty, a 68-year-old Elder from Behchokǫ̀.

Earlier this month, St. Michael’s Parish announced the Old Mission House would be demolished after decades of housing priests, conducting sermons, and ultimately providing a spiritual hub for the community.

It was originally built in the 1930s as a Roman Catholic missionary school.

“I think people should remember that the Mission is where it all started,” Lafferty refers to a time when there weren’t many spaces to gather as a community—or offer support.

(Photo courtesy of NWT Archives)

Behchokǫ̀, known as Fort Rae at the time, was seen as a major trading post for the Hudson’s Bay Company. This helped establish the community and bring in some extra income for residents.

Other than the hospital, the Old Mission House was the place to be.

“It was a place to go if you needed help; you need advice from the priests, it was the Mission. If you needed to do your banking, it was the Mission,” Lafferty says.

Lafferty remembers his time fondly serving at the Old Mission House as an altar boy and credits the man he is today for it.

It was a family affair to get involved in the church and it was his grandmother who suggested it.

“I remembered that church everywhere I went because it was so small you could see the church from every part of our little town,” he says.

(Photo courtesy of NWT Archives)

Although youth might not appreciate its significance, he says, “We’ve got the memories, that’s a good thing.”

However, Lafferty says he’s ready to see it go and that they should turn it into a parking lot because “parking has always been a problem.”

Several years ago, the Old Mission House was condemned due to mould, asbestos and other age-related factors. Now volunteers and churchgoers alike are cleaning out the space to prepare for the demolition. Things like tables, chairs, dishes, even cooking pans and pots are up for grabs.

Lafferty went back to retrieve a souvenir and chose a door knob, something he plans on re-purposing in his cabin.

“It’s so sad for me, because it is such a historical place,” says Father Gerald (Mick) Fleming, current priest at St. Michael’s. “And it has been such a prominent (building) in the life of the community.”

The Old Mission House was small enough to heat in the winter and had a built-in residence, kitchen and bathroom.  Somethings even the current church does not have.

As it stands, there are no current plans to repurpose the space says, Fr. Mick.

“We’re trying to preserve as much as we can,” he says.

The parish has cleaned out the space, donated items and sent photos and documents to the Behchokǫ̀ museum (on the 2nd floor of the Kǫ̀ Gocho Sportsplex Centre) for safekeeping.

“In order to hopefully dream and look at what may be some possibilities for the use of the space, as we move forward as a community and as a diocese, can only be possible if we sadly have to remove it.”

If it were up to him, he says, he’d erect another building in its place where “we could do catechetical programs, Bible study programs, where we have proper washroom facilities for the respect of our Elders.”

“It has played an (important) part in the life of our Elders, and many of our Elders now have passed,” he says. “They’re the ones who’ve got the history of it, they’re the ones who’ve got a lot of the sacred knowledge keepers (who) have been emotionally and spiritually attached to it and so it’s always painful to let go.”

Fr. Mick says he plans on hosting a farewell service in celebration of the Old Mission House for the community in the coming months.

‘He was like a father to us’

“When we were young, there were not many places to hang out and that Mission was always open to anybody to drop by, sit around and talk,” says George Mackenzie, former Tłı̨chǫ Grand Chief and a member of the parish.

After returning from the Hudson Bay Company near the island, he says,  everyone would gather back at the Old Mission House.

He remembers former Priest Father Jean Pochat fondly because of his open-door policy.

“We talked about anything under the sun,” Mackenzie says. “I was his student.”

Mackenzie says he also served as an altar boy before going back to residential school in Fort Smith.

Fr. Pochat served the community through the parish for about 46 years, he was so beloved that he was buried on the grounds.

“He was like a father to us,” he says, ” he was understanding and a very good listener.”

Mackenzie says he attributes his time spent with Fr. Pochat as a defining moment that helped shape him, much like Lafferty.

“I remember him attached to the Mission building,” he adds.

 “We will never forget how the building looked and what it meant to us young people, the old people. It was a place where we gather not necessarily for church service, but just to visit each other.”

Kala Sanspariel was just a child when Fr. Pochat passed away.

“I remember trick or treating one Halloween and visiting the Mission house and seeing Pochat teaching another Father how to count in different languages, in Latin and Dogrib. Pochat counted flawlessly while the other Father kept messing up.”

“He was a good man, (I’m) still touched that he called Behchokǫ̀ his home and got buried there.”

Rev. Jean Pochat passed away at 82 years old in 2010 after serving 60 years in the Northwest Territoires.


About the Author

Mariah Caruso
Mariah Caruso is a digital journalist, originally from Toronto, Canada. She graduated from the University of Toronto with a Hons. Bachelor of Arts and completed her Journalism post-grad at Sheridan College. She has an insatiable appetite for life, storytelling, connecting to the people, and getting to the heart of the issue. On her spare time, you can find her at your local coffee shop writing songs, poetry and prose or at the gym out-lifting men. If you have a story idea, feel free to send her an email at mariah.caruso@cklbradio.com or call 867-766-2552 Ext 108