My kokum blessed what the world said was incompatible: I became an Indigenous priest

This First Person column is written by Father Cristino Bouvette who lives in Calgary. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I had sped across the lands of the Siksika Nation countless times before, just never this fast. That familiar road always brought to mind my dear kokum who, little by little, had been instilling in her grandson-turned-Catholic priest an ever-deepening awareness of our ancestry. 

Driving across those plains, inching towards foothills, somehow felt like a reconciliation of my two identities: the man I had been since the moment of my conception — a man of Indigenous heritage — and the man I became after years of formation and preparation — a disciple of Christ and a missionary. The world constantly told me my two identities were incompatible given Canada’s history. But I had found a sort of compatibility thanks to my kokum, just as  those plains became foothills on the horizon. 

Kokum was Cree from Saddle Lake and my grandfather was Métis from central Alberta. She first learned about Christianity at home. Her great-grandfather was one of the first ordained Indigenous men in pre-Confederation Canada for the Methodist Church. Her father diligently translated Christian hymns into Cree. 

But Kokum was also a residential school survivor. Despite the abuse and trauma she endured from some people who were supposed to represent God’s mercy, she still had deep faith. 

The harmony she experienced in being both Christian and Indigenous is something I learned from her.

Amelia ‘Mae’ (Steinhauer) Bouvette is dressed in traditional attire at Saddle Lake, Alta., with her husband, Tom Bouvette, in this photo taken in the early 1950s. (Cristino Bouvette)

This time, though, the speed of my driving was not motivated by daydreaming of what Kokum had taught me. This time, it was the sound of her voice relayed through a call from my aunt. 

“Kokum doesn’t have much time left, my boy, and she’s asking for you. How quickly can you get here?” 

I was testing my well-worn engine as well as multiple jurisdictions of law enforcement to find out. Of all days, Divine Providence would have me 300 kilometres further away than usual from my kokum’s home. 

It was a Friday at 3 p.m. — what we Catholics traditionally call the Hour of Mercy in commemoration of the hour of Christ’s death on the cross —when I began reciting the appointed prayers. I said those prayers for my kokum. Was she calling for her grandson or her priest? It made no difference to me. I wanted desperately to be holding her hand at that moment. I owed it to her!

Some 15 years earlier, when I nervously broached the topic of my intentions to pursue the priesthood, it was her hand grasping mine. I wasn’t sure how she would react to her own grandson becoming so involved in the institution of the Church when it had failed her in so many ways. 

Her eyes closed tight after I abruptly made the announcement, and I couldn’t tell if it was a look of pain or consternation. Then that strong 85-year-old hand squeezed hard. “Oh my boy, I’ve known many good nuns and priests. I know you’ll be one of those.” 

LISTEN | Cristino Bouvette shares why he was nervous to tell his kokum he wanted to become a priest

The Current10:47Why an Indigenous man dreaded telling his grandma he’s a priest

When Cristino Bouvette became a priest, he dreaded telling his grandmother — a residential school survivor. But her reaction showed him that reconciliation takes many forms. 10:47

With a grandson’s love and a priest’s fervour, I prayed those prayers with absolute conviction that she was going to hang in there until I made it. I wasn’t going to let her down; God wasn’t going to let her down. 

At 3:11p.m., my prayers were done and the phone rang. Auntie Debbie again. The tears came and my heart broke. I didn’t need to answer. I already knew. I failed her. 

“Auntie?” 

Long, empty silence. 

“She’s gone home, my boy, but it was so peaceful. Auntie Milly’s flight lands in Calgary soon, why don’t you go pick her up before coming here?” 

For a moment, I slipped out of grandson mode and thought only as a priest. Why, Lord? Why would you let me fail her like that? She needed me! She needed to hear those words of Scripture in her ears that were etched in her heart; she needed to hear those assuring words, “Your sins are forgiven, go in peace.” 

As I dragged my heavy heart up the stairs to my chapel to wait for the flight to land, I opened the Scriptures to see the passage assigned for that day: 

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14: 1-3).

Those burning tears burst forth like waterfalls this time. Did Kokum need to hear any words from me, or did I need to say them? 

That powerful woman, one month shy of her 100th birthday, was seeking to claim her inheritance. That woman, once a little girl, taken from her family to be kept in a place far from home, a place never to resemble the Father’s house. From the comfort of her actual father’s house, she already knew about the Father’s house since the tender age of 7. 

Her faith in that final destination was the source and stay of her life through many dark moments of which residential school was only the first. She grew up in a world marked by the horror of the Great War, and nearly starved during the Depression. As a new wife and young mother, she was left temporarily without a partner while he fought overseas in another world war. She barely scraped by with a small farm and an ever-expanding brood of children to feed. There was one consistent source of light in Kokum’s life and she inspired me to brighten its brilliance by the gift of my own. 

Finally at her bedside several hours later than hoped, I grasped her hand. That worn wrinkled hand told lots of stories. Her grandson and her priest were there but it was, yet again, she who ministered to me. That tired hand, which only ever closed if it was wrapped around someone else’s, reminded me that even if I felt I had failed her that day, I did not need to fail her in my future. 

If I can keep my hand — scarred from truth, open to reconciliation, stretched out in healing — clasping the hand of the other, Kokum’s legacy can live on. A legacy of personal reconciliation: accepting all of what makes us whole into ourselves, and becoming a gift to the other, simply for who we are — that is true reconciliation.


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