Seeing Mother Teresa speak at the Pacific Coliseum in 1976 was a life-changing experience for Ruth de Weerdt, then a high school student at Vancouver’s Little Flower Academy.
Forty-six years later, de Weerdt, now 63 and an active member of Sacred Heart Parish in Delta, explains her decision to travel with a friend to Alberta to attend the Papal Mass at Commonwealth Stadium (where her friend will be an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and then the Liturgy of the Word at Lac Ste Anne on July 26 are deeply linked to this earlier event.
De Weerdt said in an interview that Mother Teresa’s speech sparked her desire to serve the poor. As a result, she contacted the Missionaries of Charity in New York, saying she wanted to help Mother Teresa in India.
“They told me that they don’t usually send people from North America to India because they don’t have the immunity to fight the diseases,” de Weerdt said. Instead, “The sisters said I could serve the poor in Canada – go to the Canadian North and work with your poor.
“And I’m like, ‘We have poor people in Canada?’ and she said, “You have some native people who are poor. And they [the sisters] knew — I’m going to cry now — they knew for the poor, the poor Indigenous people, and none of us knew that,” de Weerdt said. “Everything was kept secret. We never learned that in history. Everything was hidden. »
Shortly thereafter, de Weerdt read an article in The BC Catholic about Father Pietro Bignami, an Oblate missionary from Italy working among the natives of the Cross Lake community in northern Manitoba. She contacted him and he invited her to help him during the summer of 1977.
(The famous Father Bignami learned to speak Cree before French and then English. He served in Canada for over 60 years and died in 2010 at the age of 83.)
“It was an answer to my prayer,” she said. “It was like, ‘This is it! This is how I’m going to get to do what God calls me to do.'”
She spent four months in the Cross Lake area, visiting the sick, helping with summer activities and Bible study, playing guitar and singing. During this time she also traveled to Norway House to work with Catholic nuns on a music and activity program for the native community.
De Weerdt said her time as a volunteer missionary led her to form a lasting connection with Indigenous peoples. But she was unprepared for the surprise God had in store for her when Father Bignami told her he believed she might be native herself. He took a picture of her, posing alongside two native girls, to show her the likeness.
De Weerdt, who was adopted as a baby, said her parents never told her about her heritage, but she felt there might be some truth to Father Bignami’s sighting. With the matter unresolved, de Weerdt returned home and within a year traveled to Whitehorse, Yukon, to live in community with other Catholic volunteers from England, the United States United and Canada, helping to serve the remote parish, which includes many remote First Nations communities.
She returned home after a year, became a lay Franciscan at age 21, eventually married and raised four children.
The mystery of her ancestry lingered until 2010, when she discovered through an adoption registry that she was a quarter native – her biological mother was a member of the N’Quatqua First Nation which is centered in D’Arcy, British Columbia.
“It was almost like I always knew,” she said. “It was like my body knew. It’s kind of weird. I always felt a connection, but I didn’t know the extent of it.
She embraced the news. “Personally, it was an absolutely positive experience, a homecoming feeling,” she said. “Like, now I know who I am. It made sense.
She now leads Sacred Heart Parish’s Truth and Reconciliation Ministry and attends Papal Mass to “unite with the Holy Father in prayer, for truth and reconciliation,” it said. – she says, and “to bring the experience back to the parish”.
De Weerdt said his goal was to help his fellow Catholics “have the courage to look deeply into the truth.” Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous Catholics need to heal, she said, and non-Indigenous people can only achieve this by “being able to really see the truth and recognize it.”
Pope Francis’ apology is important, she said, but all of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, including restitution, must be met before the healing can be completed.
“There must be a full acknowledgment of the truth,” she said, “before there is forgiveness.”
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