Order leaves Fort Frances after 110 years

The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (O.M.I.), which has supplied priests to area Catholic churches for 110 years, is leaving Fort Frances.
“We would love to stay but we are missionaries,” Fr. David B. Perrin, provincial superior for the order of priests, said Sunday at St. Mary’s Church here.
“We don’t have the men to put here.”
The O.M.I. was founded almost 200 years ago and has about 5,000 priests stationed around the world. They arrived in Canada in the 1840s and made their way across the country via fur trading routes, starting churches as they went along.
The first priests arrived in Fort Frances in 1892 and have been here ever since.
Fr. Perrin, who spent four years as dean of the faculty of theology at St. Paul University in Ottawa, said the order’s chief aim is to start churches and stay as long as is needed to get them off the ground.
“In Thunder Bay, we stayed 30 years. Here we stayed 110, that’s not bad,” he chuckled.
The decision to leave Fort Frances comes as Fr. Eugene Whyte, who has been at St. Mary’s for the past three years, opted to serve in the mission in Bula-Wayo, Zimbabwe.
Fr. Whyte will celebrate his last mass here at the end of June, then will leave for Africa in the fall.
“Fr. Eugene Whyte decided to go to Africa and had he not been going, we probably would stay here longer,” Fr. Perrin noted.
Before the Oblates leave permanently, to be replaced by priests from the diocesan of Thunder Bay, local parishioners took time to celebrate their contribution to the community.
On Sunday, St. Mary’s parish council unveiled a plaque commemorating the 110 years of service by the order.
Bishop Fred Colli, who was unable to attend the service, said in a letter that the diocesan of Thunder Bay would have a scholarship of $400 a year in honour of the oblates, awarding it to someone who was pursuing studies in theology, and especially in ministry.
Meanwhile, the parish council donated a cheque to the Oblates’ missions in Africa and Peru. The Knights of Columbus also donated $1,000 for missionaries there.
“Since he’s going to Africa, Fr. Eugene already has his hands on some of this money,” parishioner Georges Blanc said during the service.
“They have been serving the parish for a long time. They are definitely going to be missed,” Blanc said afterwards. “It’s a sad day, especially now not knowing who is going to replace them.”
Also this past weekend, the Catholic church community also said goodbye to Fr. Gilbert Levesque, who moved to the St. Boniface retirement home in Winnipeg after a decade of service to Rainy River District.
“We knew Fr. Gilbert when he was in Emo at St. Patrick’s Church,” said Margrit Schaum. “He baptized some of our grandchildren and we just loved him. We will miss him a lot.”
A choir of 65 children from St. Michael’s School sang for Fr. Levesque at a special goodbye gathering after mass Saturday evening.
Representatives from the Oblates were touched by the tributes to their efforts.
“I thought it was wonderful. It was very touching,” remarked Fr. Perrin. “You know I was here for two years in 1987-89 and I knew a lot of people from then and it was like a homecoming for me.
“The generosity, you see it over and over again here.”
“I’m very grateful for the opportunity to serve here,” added Fr. Whyte. “The people are so generous and welcoming and there is a great sense of community.
“It was a blessing to serve.”