Small Church, Big Story

If you visit the tiny church on the Brokenhead Ojibwa Nation in March, you will find Doc Vezina stoking the big wood stove in preparation for the afternoon service. His wife, Marcella, will regale you with stories of the surrounding nations and their ancestors, as she prepares the music for her family and community. Outside, the wind rages, reminiscent of the storms weathered over the years by the little community an hour north of Winnipeg’s Perimeter Highway.

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Navaeh, Zachary, and Quinn warm themselves by the fire on Sunday morning

St. Philip’s, Scanterbury, is not just a parish church for Doc and Marcella; it is the centre of their community. Married at 16 and 17, they have fond memories of Friday night dancing in the church hall, of baptising one baby after another, and of caring for the surrounding yard. Most importantly, the church grounds are where their ancestors are buried. “I remember going to care for great-grandfather’s grave as a child,” Doc explains, “It is important to treat our ancestors with respect.”
Doc and Marcella are descended from many generations of Métis who havemade their home at the edge of the Ojibwa Nation. Their children and grandchildren are spread far and wide these days, but several return for services in the little building, which can seat up to 40 people. Between them sits Brandi, their grown granddaughter. Now teaching and living in Winnipeg, Brandi returns to the beautiful church, because of the community she finds there. She struggles to find the same sense of rootedness anywhere in the city.
Over the past year, the Vezinas’ once-dwindling parish home has grown from about five to 20 people on a Sunday. After 120 years, they are excited to have their first Indigenous priest. Vincent Solomon, who works full time for the Mennonite Central Committee in Winnipeg, holds services in Scanterbury twice a month. “He’s down to earth,” says Marcella, “He tells us about his life and it’s just like my own.”
Her face falls as she thinks about the trials faced by her family and larger community in the last several decades. She recounts stories of war, alcoholism, suicide, and illness, but takes some comfort in knowing that her spiritual teacher is one who has walked familiar roads. Then she brightens and laughs, “[Talking with Vincent is] like talking to my son. I can boss him around!”
Smiles and hugs fill the room as the community gathers around the warm stove to share the peace with one another. The wooden beams look as though they might burst for the stories they hold. Doc looks up and remembers coming to church on a horse as a boy. Marcella thinks of her father out trapping while the family gathered for worship. They sit down in the front pew and Vincent tells a story of belonging. “When no one else wanted to listen to you, God called your name,” he says, “Here in God’s care we are wanted and loved.” The radiating warmth of the stove is like the hope radiating out of the little church, and twenty people gather around the altar, knowing they are home.
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