My first Christmas in Sault Ste. Marie

Three sleepy kids opening presents

It's done! I've celebrated my first Christmas in the diocese of Sault Ste. Marie. This post is a bit of a combo, to cover a few days of activity.

There is a tradition in this diocese in which the diocesan bishop celebrates the Christmas mass in the Pro-Cathedral in North Bay. That said, we are currently finding ourselves short-staffed due to a couple of priests being stuck overseas. I volunteered to go wherever there was a need, which turned out to be a cluster of French-speaking parishes: Sacré-Coeur in Sturgeon Falls, Sainte-Thérèse-d'Avila in Cache Bay, and Saint-Vincent-de-Paul in North Bay itself.

Unfortunately, I have to admit I did not get off to a good start. I had hoped to get to Sacré-Coeur 30 minutes before mass was scheduled to begin, but I underestimated the time it would take for me to get from my residence to Sturgeon Falls. I got there with 5 minutes to spare. On top of that, I had forgotten how complicated it is for a bishop to get ready for a mass! With the pandemic, my masses in parishes had been severely limited in Montréal, so I had focussed on mass in Mary Queen of the World cathedral -- where, quite naturally, everything was. With all the extra set up (my crozier stand, in particular) and the extra vesting time, I felt a little discombobulated. On top of that, because all my liturgy books were not all unpacked, I did not have a chance to review the readings and prayers before heading out. So we had a few stumbles. My apologies to the people of Sturgeon Falls -- I'll learn for next time!

The second mass of the evening, in Cache Bay, went much better. This time I only had 10 minutes to drive, not an hour, so I was able to arrive a good 30-45 minutes before mass and get everything set up the way I know best. Some time to collect myself beforehand meant that my homily was more focused as well. Finally, I had a chance to chat with people (in a socially-distanced way of course) before and after, which made all the difference for me. In what was a moment of last-minute inspiration I asked the parishioners to make a special gesture of thanks to the volunteers to do all the COVID-related tasks, such as contact tracing and cleaning of pews. If it wasn't for them, none of our churches could be open, but thanks to them there has not been (to my knowledge) a single case of a COVID outbreak related to going to church. With their checklists and spray bottles, those people are keeping the house of the Lord open for worship. I am very grateful to them.

After the second mass, I headed to the Pro-Cathedral in North Bay for an overnight (I have a room there). As it happened, the priests of the cathedral along with some staff and volunteers were taking a break between masses, so I joined them for a bit a food and celebration. I then hit the hay. The next day I headed over to Saint-Vincent-de-Paul for the noon Christmas day mass, which I presided. Unfortunately, I had another hiccup: I had misunderstood the pastor of the parish when we discussed who would do the homily. Now there are two ways this can go: either we each thought the other would do it (with no one having prepared something) or we each thought we would do it (meaning two homilies were ready to go). Obviously, the first situation is more problematic! But thankfully it was the second. Instead of preaching myself, I got to hear one of my priests preach, which is also a nice treat for me (we bishops often do all the talking).

Once all that was over I got in my car for the long drive to Ottawa. A new COVID lockdown was set to start at midnight, so I made sure I got a chance to see my sister-in-law and my nieces the evening of December 25 before continuing on to Kemptville to spend a few days with the family there. Because I live alone I was allowed to join a "household bubble" for the holidays, which was great. The next day was a new session of opening presents by the kids, although I get the impression they weren't quite awake yet!