Thinking of what to do next with my life, I pick up the phone and it is Patrick Scott from the Denendeh Papal Office asking me to take on the role of fundraiser and finance officer for the Papal Visit to Fort Simpson.

I am not a Catholic. In fact, I’m an agnostic. I was raised Pentecostal. I clearly remember a conversation with a Catholic sister about who had it worse in religious upbringing. Both young women at the time, we compared notes as to the future we were directed to. My supposed destiny was to marry a Pentecostal pastor and move to Africa to work with the wives and women of the “saved” men to the religion.

My final response to the Catholic woman I debated was “At least you had purgatory! I am destined to go directly to hell!”

Do I have to be a Catholic, I asked Patrick? No, I was told.

Some might question my morality for taking on positions that did not comply with a faith or tenet of belief. I believe in people’s faith in spirituality coupled with good deeds and good persons and their work. That is my morality.

Regardless of the horrific stories Indigenous people recounted from Catholic-run residential schools, there was still a stubborn following of the church. And at this time, the Pope was invited and had agreed to visit Fort Simpson in 1984 to acknowledge the harm of the church.

I said “Yes” to the offer.

Stephen Kakfwi escorts Pope John Paul II through the crowd in Fort Simpson in September 1987. The Pope’s visit drew faithful from across the Northwest Territories to the Deh Cho community, where the Pontiff met Indigenous leaders and delivered Sunday mass. NNSL archive photo

I moved to Fort Simpson to work with the Denendeh Papal Office staff to talk of this vision, the numbers of people they expected, the housing and feeding needs and the celebrations. It was known the Pope would come and leave the same day to attend the next city for the continuation of his North American travels.

Part of the work to welcome the Pope was the development of the Papal Site and the erection of a giant teepee-shaped staging area from where he would speak, which is now rebuilt.

With the welcome of an international leader, financing commitments were not that difficult. The costing took longer and was under more scrutiny.

Rene Fumoleau acquired a helicopter to film the Papal site, the Deh Cho and the community beforehand. We went up together. The doors were open for better visuals. When we landed I noted that I had leaned over so much taking pictures that the only thing keeping me in the craft was the double fold of the belt and latch keeping me in my seat and not into the Deh Cho.

We all know what happened. The fog moved in at Fort Simpson and the Pope’s plane could not land. It returned to Yellowknife, met by hundreds notified by the Catholic “wire system” of the era. They were elated to meet the Pope, while hundreds in Fort Simpson were devastated having sat for hours on a cold and damp day.

I was on the phone that day to be notified that the Pope’s plane could not land. I told the officials from the Canadian Catholic Bishops of the hundreds assembled and asked if he could return after his other scheduled stops in Canada. I was told they would try to find a means to return. I relayed this message to the Papal Site officials.

The message delivered was that the Pope would return in the future! There was lots of debate as to whether that was a commitment or wishfulness.

The Pope did return to Denendeh in 1987.

I was told of the magical Indigenous moment when a bald eagle flew across the Papal vehicle on its drive to the Papal site.

Again, hundreds of Indigenous People were prepared to meet him, take his blessings and return home fulfilled with such.

I did managed to get to the Papal site, close to the stage as an official.

I took a direct look from the Pope, who noticed me as I moved about the staging area with the Papal officials. That pleased me somehow. I wonder what the next adventure will be.

I love the adventures the people of Denendeh have helped me with.

I, in turn, train people to take on such adventures in logistics.

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