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The good shepherd

Father Leonce Dehurtevent 1911 - 2002

By Sister Agnes Sutherland
for Northern News Services

Fort Smith (Apr 22/02) - Father Leonce Dehurtevent, who died at age of 91 earlier this month, was born in 1911 in France, where he spent all his early years.

He was ordained an Oblate priest in 1936. He left a year later to become a very special missionary in Northern Canada. His first trip back home was in the fall of 1948.

He lived with the Inuvialuit in the Far North for 58 years, 48 of those years he spent in Paulatuk. He was not only their spiritual leader but also a very special priest and friend to all who knew him.

Father soon realized that he had many new challenges to overcome and not the least was to learn two new languages: English and the Inuvialuktun language with the help of his new friendly people.

One family, in particular was soon convinced that they could become his walking dictionary and teacher.

Even the young children felt that it was their duty to help Father learn their language and they were right on. Within a year Father Dehurtevent was very happy to be able to communicate fluently with them in Inuvialuktun.

Father Dehurtevent admitted that he often felt lonely and challenged when he first arrived in that distant, cold and barren North as a young priest. "But I expected it to be lots worse."

A simple lifestyle

Father Dehurtevent did not hesitate to express that the Inuvialuit lifestyle was very simple but that he also appreciated a very simple lifestyle. However, he did experience great difficulty surviving without mail from his dear family so very, very far away.

"I have never, never regretted sharing my life and God's message with my new friends. In fact, I often had a great dream, a dream that I would never leave Paulatuk, but God also had plans for me."

And it seems that his people cherished more than dreams for their missionary whom they have never forgotten. They wished, hoped and prayed that he would never leave them, at least until he was called to his new home, his heavenly home.

Learning two new languages immediately upon arriving in Northern Canada was just the beginning of more and more challenges for Father. He became equally competent in driving his team of dogs, or walking miles in the deep or hardened snow to visit more of his people.

Father admitted that he was never an expert at building iglus where the ground was frozen and covered with snow almost nine months of the year. He could not remember the number of times he pitched up a small canvas tent in the middle of nowhere for a good nights' sleep on his way to visit families about 100 miles away.

He also learned how to fish in the frozen lakes and rivers to keep his food storage filled. Before continuing to share his travelling memories of the North, he added while giggling, "I found cooking a chore so I preferred chewing and eating and tasting raw frozen northern foods such as frozen fish and meats." With an extra big grin he shared some more of his early experiences.

"It was easy to get lost travelling alone some distance from Paulatuk especially in those severe snowstorms and blizzards. Yes, I got lost and terribly frightened a couple of times but with God's help I always managed to patiently drive back home, most often almost frozen and starving to death."

Respected by peers

He was known, especially by his fellow missionaries, as the "saint" or "the good shepherd, the hermit, the man of God whom they admired and respected."

Father was also revered and well accepted by his Inuvialuit people as "a patient, prayerful, gentle, soft-spoken priest whom they will never forget."

He was totally committed to share his love of God and to dedicate his life for all God's people. His door was always open to everyone.

The youth loved to get together in his home every day. All he asked and expected was the bare necessities of life to survive and fulfil his responsibilities as a committed missionary.

He not only felt like a shepherd watching over his sheep but he also followed them around here and there for a good cause. Years ago, during the Second World War, when the people of Paulatuk moved to Cape Parry, a Dew Line site, he moved along with them and lived with them in a small cold shack. Ten years later he did not hesitate to pick up his packsack and sleeping bag and move back to Paulatuk with the people who decided to go back to their original and unique home.

In 1996, Father had a hard time to make up his mind to leave his home among the Inuvialuit for 58 years. He was finally able to overcome his difficult decision.

He finally accepted, due to his advanced age and poor health, to leave Paulatuk and retire with his Oblate Brothers at Placid Place in Edmonton.

Even that great distance did not prevent his people from getting in touch with him when they were informed that their Father Dehurtevent was about to leave this world for his heavenly home and reward.

They arranged to get hooked up from the Paulatuk school telephone to the Oblate Placid nursing station telephone in Edmonton. Father was informed of the pleasant surprise about to reach him.

His people were anxious, delighted and eager to offer him their best wishes and to pray with and for him.

They sang their favourite Inuvialuktun hymns with all their hearts and souls as their tears mingled with their voices through the long, long distance telephone system.

Many spoke a few words to Father, but the great moment came when Father's voice was heard. Their tears continued to heavily flow as they listened to Father's voice and messages in their own language.

Big smiles replaced the tears as Father said, "Hearing from all of you is worth 1,000 pills." They probably left with more smiles than tears. No doubt the Paulatuk people will never forget their priest who spent 48 years with them.

During the past months, a fractured hip took its toll on Father and left him hovering between life and death. However, he was granted a few extra days after he was strengthened and comforted by the voices and love of his people.

Hearing of the plight of their dear friend, Hank and Darlene Wolki and their three children, Michael, Melannie and Chad flew from Paulatuk to Edmonton to be with him for a few days and offered him much comfort.

Father Dehurtevent died at Placid Place on April 6. Father Camille Piche, provincial superior of the Missionary Oblates of Grandin Province, presided at the burial services.

Father Dehurtevent was buried in the Oblate Cemetery in St. Albert, Alta.