Catholics question relationship with church after tomb found at boarding school

Given that recent history, said Hilbig, 35, as well as what he already knew about the residential school system, the discovery of the alleged remains came as no surprise.

Hilbig, who lives in Richmond Hill, Ont., Is among less-active and active Catholics who are re-examining their relationship with the church in light of recent news.

Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced Thursday that ground-penetrating radar had detected 751 unmarked graves in the former residential school city of Marieval. Last month, the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation said the same technology found what is believed to be the remains of 215 children at an old school in Kamloops, British Columbia.

Hilbig said he’s looking to church officials to take responsibility, and he’s already seen signs that could be happening.

After initial resistance, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate – the religious order that ran the two schools – pledged to publish all their records relating to all these facilities.

The same goes for the Sisters of St. Anne, an order of nuns whose members worked in boarding schools.

Hilbig said the steps gave him hope that the institution that was the foundation of his youth could begin to redeem itself.

But Hilbig’s complex relationship with the Roman Catholic Church is separate from his relationship with God, he noted.

Although he was made to question the first, he knows his faith will remain stable.

When he was 10, Hilbig said, he and his extended family surrounded his grandfather when he died.

“And when he did, he smiled. It’s been kind of an anchor for me, and it’s pretty steadfast, ”he said.

“My relationship with God is not bound by the church. He is informed by the teachings (of the church), but he is not bound by it.

Hilbig said it may be time for governments in Canada to reconsider their relationship with religious institutions as well.

“I hope this is an inflection point for Canada to evolve,” he said.

Shannon Bernard of Toronto grapples with similar questions.

Her eldest son is finishing first grade in Catholic school and her youngest son is due to start kindergarten in the fall.

Bernard was adopted into a Catholic family and also attended a Catholic school. She started questioning the church as a teenager and no longer considered herself a member of the religion, but decided to enroll her boys in Catholic school on the advice of a few teacher friends.

She is now questioning her choice, wondering if the system will provide her sons with the residential school education she missed when she was a student.

“I have certainly considered leaving the school system if this remains the status quo,” Bernard said. “I just hope to see some changes over the next few months or a year.”

Bernard, who is a First Nations person and whose family members attended residential schools, said she is also turning to the church for an apology that she doubts will ever come.

Pope Benedict XVI expressed his “sadness” over residential schools in a statement in 2009, but Bernard said that was not enough.

“It was an acknowledgment, not an apology,” she said.

The current pontiff, Francis, also stopped before making a formal apology, which disappointed Clara Casucci-McLeod of Niagara Falls, Ontario.

The 67-year-old’s first schism with the church came about three decades ago when a Catholic priest refused to officiate her marriage to a divorced man.

Casucci-McLeod’s disgust at the desire to convert unbelievers to Catholicism – amplified a decade ago when she began to learn about the atrocities committed in the residential school system in the name of God – helped to deepen the divide.

But close family ties to religion kept her connected to the institution even as her faith changed, so she watched the final papal conclave with interest.

“I had such high hopes for Pope Francis,” she said. “I remember when he was standing on that balcony, and I remember crying when he came out and having that overwhelming feeling of, he’s such a good person. He will make the difference.

“And I believe he did. But he didn’t go far enough. He disappointed me so much.

The Residential School Health Support Program has a hotline to assist residential school survivors and their loved ones with trauma from recalling past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 27, 2021.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

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