My kokum blessed what the world said was incompatible: I became a native priest

This first-person chronicle is written by Father Cristino Bouvette who lives in Calgary. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see frequently asked questions.

I had traversed the lands of the Siksika Nation countless times before, but never so fast. This familiar road always reminded me of my dear kokum who, little by little, had instilled in his grandson who had become a Catholic priest an ever deeper awareness of our ancestry.

Driving through these plains, heading into the foothills, felt in a way like a reconciliation of my two identities: the man I had been from the moment of my conception—a man of aboriginal descent—and the man I I have become after years of training and preparation — a disciple of Christ and a missionary. The world constantly told me that my two identities were incompatible given Canada’s history. But I had found a kind of compatibility through 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 Christianity at home. His great-grandfather was one of the first Aboriginal men ordained before the Confederation of Canada for the Methodist Church. His father assiduously translated Christian hymns into Cree.

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

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

Amelia ‘Mae’ (Steinhauer) Bouvette wears a traditional outfit in Saddle Lake, Alberta, with her husband, Tom Bouvette, in this photo taken in the early 1950s. (Cristino Bouvette)

This time, however, the speed of my ride was not driven by daydreaming about what Kokum had taught me. This time it was the sound of his voice relayed by a call from my aunt.

“Kokum is running out of time, boy, and she’s asking you. How soon can you come here?”

I was testing my well-worn engine as well as multiple law enforcement jurisdictions to find out. Every day, Divine Providence would have taken me 300 kilometers further than usual from my kokum’s house.

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 to recite the appointed prayers. I said these prayers for my kokum. Was she calling her grandson or her priest? It made no difference to me. I desperately wanted to hold her hand right now. I owed him!

About fifteen years ago, when I nervously broached the subject of my intentions to pursue the priesthood, it was his hand that held mine. I had no idea how she would react if her own grandson became so involved in the institution of the Church when she had disappointed her in so many ways.

His eyes closed tightly after I abruptly made the announcement, and I couldn’t tell if it was a look of pain or dismay. Then that 85-year-old strong hand squeezed hard. “Oh my boy, I have known many good nuns and priests. I know you will be one of them.”

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

The flow10:47Why an Indigenous man dreaded telling his grandmother he was a priest

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

With the love of a grandson and the fervor of a priest, I prayed these prayers with absolute conviction that she would hold on until I succeeded. I wasn’t going to let her down; God was not going to let her down.

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


Long, empty silence.

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

For a while, I stepped out of grandson mode and thought only as a priest. Why, Lord? Why would you let me disappoint her like this? She needed me! She needed to hear those words of scripture in her ears that were engraved in her heart; she needed to hear those reassuring 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 assigned passage for that day:

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

Those hot tears flowed like waterfalls this time. Does Kokum need hear words from me, or did I need to say them?

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

Her faith in this final destination was the source and the stay of her life through many dark moments of which boarding school was only the first. She grew up in a world marked by the horror of the Great War and nearly starved to death during the Depression. As a new wife and young mother, she found herself temporarily without a partner while he fought overseas in another world war. She barely survived with a small farm and an ever-growing offspring of children to feed. There was a constant source of light in Kokum’s life and she inspired me to brighten up her glow with the gift of mine.

Finally at his bedside several hours later than hoped, I grabbed his hand. This worn and wrinkled hand told many stories. Her grandson and her priest were there but it was still her who served me. That tired hand, which only closed when wrapped around someone else’s, reminded me that even though I felt like I had let it down that day, I had no need to drop her in my future.

If I can keep my hand – marked by truth, open to reconciliation, reaching out in healing – shaking hands with the other, Kokum’s legacy can live on. A legacy of personal reconciliation: accepting all that makes us whole within ourselves and becoming a gift to the other, simply for who we are – this is true reconciliation.

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