Angry Catholics Wanted to Burn the Church. He Came to Save It.

New York Times [New York NY]

June 13, 2024

By Norimitsu Onishi


The Rev. Gérard Tsatselam boarded the ferryboat and settled in his usual place, on a reclining seat, at the back of a cold, unlit room that would have been packed in summer. Uneasy, he sat shrouded in his large, black coat as high winter winds delayed the boat’s arrival in the village where he was trying to save the church.

Except for a quick stopover for a funeral, he had not visited his parish — in Unamen Shipu, an Indigenous reserve on the frigid, isolated coast of northeastern Quebec — in months. Mold had invaded the presbytery and left him scrambling for lodging on each visit.

Another reason behind his unease was the enduring fallout from the accusations of sexual and other abuse by a predecessor, a Belgian priest. Though the transgressions dated back decades, during what Father Gérard called the Roman Catholic Church’s “colonial” era, dealing with the parishioners’ anger and distrust had fallen to him — a priest and missionary from the Central African nation of Cameroon.

Father Gérard had been Unamen Shipu’s priest for four years, and his predecessor long dead, when the accusations were leveled in 2017.

“The moment they came out, the dynamics changed,” he had said before boarding. “There’s a before and an after.”

He had watched, helplessly, as most of his parishioners broke with the church.

Now, returning to Unamen Shipu, Father Gérard planned to comfort his dwindling flock and restore the faith of those who had left. He would try to assuage the rage that had fueled threats to burn down the presbytery and to cast his predecessor’s body into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

“It’s a complex terrain,” Father Gérard said. “People are still Christian. They’re religious, they believe, they still have faith. But they’re really hurting a lot.”

“Too much,” he added after a pause, so softly it was easy to miss.

Father Gérard is 43, a soft-spoken man of medium build, whose closely shaved head emphasizes his expressive eyes. He was born and raised in northern Cameroon, in a region conquered in the 19th century by Muslim invaders belonging to the Fula people, one of the dominant ethnic groups in western Africa. After World War II, priests from the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate from France arrived and sought those who had resisted converting to Islam, like Father Gérard’s family.

“For us, Christianity was seen more as a religion that liberated us from the domination of Muslim invaders,” Father Gérard said, explaining what drew him to begin studying for the priesthood in his 20s.

When Oblate priests from Canada came looking for recruits to replenish their aging ranks, he jumped at the chance.

Over the years, le Père Gérard has become a well-known and respected figure in this remote corner of Quebec, crisscrossing it by ferryboat, plane and snowmobile, his possessions stuffed in a hockey bag. He arrived from Cameroon in 2012 as an idealistic priest in his early 30s with little knowledge of Canada’s entangled history with Indigenous people, part of a wave of African priests who began coming to Quebec to make up for a shortage of local ones.

Their arrival coincided with a nationwide reckoning over Canada’s brutal treatment of generations of Indigenous people, including by the Catholic Church and at church-run boarding schools. As the church lost its authority in still deeply religious Indigenous communities, who better to heal the historic wounds than priests from Africa, a continent broken apart by colonialism? Though Father Gérard would never say so explicitly, African priests like himself were in a singular position in relation to the Indigenous population — free of the weight of the nation’s history and colonialism in a way that no Canadian or European priest could ever be.

“His history is also our history,” said Francis Malec, 67, a church elder.

Father Gérard endeared himself to many of the Innu, the local Indigenous people he was serving, by mastering their language and effortlessly engaging in their banter.

Still, even some who expressed affection for Father Gérard discerned in his presence a cynical move by the church.

“When I just think of Father Gérard, how he is, how he approaches people with his sense of humor, I think how much the church has changed,” said Bryan Mark, 41, a former chief of Unamen Shipu’s band council. “But I also have the impression that the African priests are here to try to save the image of the church.”

After hours of travel, Unamen Shipu’s shoreline of low-lying houses appeared in the distance — a nearly unbroken line of dots of white light, with the church building and the presbytery occupying the center. The ferryboat bided its time off the coast, unable to dock because of the winds.

Father Gérard finally disembarked after the sun rose. The journey had taken 12 hours instead of two, but he had gotten some sleep and was ready to begin his work among a people who may or may not trust him.

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