Father, forgive me for I have sinned.
Pity the god who made me in his image. I just turned sixty-five and have not been to confession since 1954 at the age of fourteen, the experience of which is clearly etched in memory. It was an acrimonious and a deeply traumatic event in my life in residential school. I swore I would never go back.
At that time, the confessional was an enclosed stall tucked in the back of the chapel. It had three compartments, the central cubicle being reserved for the priest who represented the all-forgiving Christ. On each side was a tiny compartment where the sinner knelt on an oak step to whisper a prepared recitation of sins through a little screened window, following which the deserved penance was meted out. The priest would then slide the window shut and open the other side to hear that confession. Usually, the penance consisted of a set of Hail Marys from the rosary in a number commensurate with the gravity of the confession. Sins were divided into two basic categories of contravention against the prescribed doctrine: mortal sins being major transgressions and venial sins being minor infractions. A sinner wearing a mortal sin upon death would go to hell. One carrying venial sins would go to purgatory. An unbaptized infant, presumed upon death to carry Adam’s original sin from the Garden of Eden, could not enter into heaven until the final Judgment Day and would, therefore, wait in a place called “Limbo.” But sins and punishment were the central preoccupations then. Such is my memory, although much seems to have changed in the Roman Catholic Church since then.
Confession is now the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The new rite may be done in three formats. The first is a celebration with one penitent. The second is a group confession, but only individual absolution is received. The third is group reconciliation where a general confession is performed and absolution is granted to all participating penitents. While the revamped sacrament still has to do with the confession of sins, the emphasis is now on healing where sinfulness is the disease and sins are its symptoms.
My confession will, more or less, follow the old protocol. It is intended for you to understand what I have gone through to get here. It will also give you my perspective on how we got to this necessary point of reconciliation. In addition, there are historical factors from the Old World thinking that have contributed to the breakdown of peace and harmony upon which Christianity, your faith, and my traditional spirituality are founded. These will be reviewed because unless we address them together, any hope of reconciliation in our society is seriously undermined. Father, given the chance, we will come to accept what we have in common and learn to respect our differences.
How did I get here?
I was literally thrown into St. Mary’s Residential School at four years of age after my father died and my mother took sick immediately thereafter. She would spend the rest of her life in and out of the hospital. My very first memory of my entry into the school is a painful flashback. For whatever reason, I am thrown into a kneeling position. My head is bashed against a wooden cupboard by the boys’ supervisor. Instant shock, the nauseating smell of ether, more spanking, then numbness; sudden fear returns at the sight of the man. Was this discipline or just outright cruelty? This had never happened to me before. Where is my dad? Where is my mother? They’re not here. Where are my three older brothers? Step in if they dare—they see what’s happening, they watch in horror, but they are helpless. Father, in time, that supervisor would be consecrated as a holy priest into your order.
You and the Oblate Fathers of Mary Immaculate and the Sisters of Saint Joseph ran the school. French was always used among yourselves and the nuns who often called us “Merde cochon!” We had to learn English, it being the only language permissible among ourselves. Latin was the official language of religious rites and rituals then. Although the language was foreign to me, I quickly became proficient in Latin recitations of the Mass as a devoted altar boy. For our part, we were strictly forbidden to use our own language at any time under pain of severe punishment.
From four to seven years of age, while the other children went to their classes, my time was spent alone in the cavernous playroom. It was dark and dreary. The room seemed haunted with strange shadows dancing about in the corners. There was no kindergarten, so occasionally a playmate would be allowed to spend time with me. When she could, my mother would take me home until she had to be readmitted into the hospital. Finally, I could begin classes at seven. The first classes were spent memorizing the catechism, the manual of questions and answers that taught everything all young Catholics must know about their religion. The first question: Who made you? God made me. Second question: Why did God make you? God made me to love him, to serve him in this world, and to be happy with him in heaven forever. There were many others.
As intriguing as some of the teachings became over the years, we could never ask why the answers were as they were. To question was to doubt, a manifestation of the devil’s work. To analyze was to mock God. To argue was to commit blasphemy, a mortal sin. The answers, we were told, came from God through the Pope, who was infallible. We were blessed with the true Word of God, and we were to pray for the strength to simply believe. We accepted everything, and we memorized the catechism dutifully. There was a heaven and that’s where we all wanted to go, but there were gnawing thoughts always reined in by my fear of the alternative. The notion of going to hell for eternity was absolutely frightening to a six-year-old, especially one with an active imagination like mine. One day, I asked the nun who served as my teacher and catechist to explain hell. First, she asked me about any previous burns. Every little boy knows the excruciating pain of fire. By way of comparison, she took me to the window and pointed to the thermometer outside on which the highest mark was 212 degrees Fahrenheit. She said that the sun is a million times hotter than that, and hellfire is many times hotter still. How does one not used to mathematics relate to a million? In our traditional system of counting, one million is conceptualized as running out of numbers once. That is heat beyond comprehension. If I die with a mortal sin in my soul, this is where I am going. Should I die with a venial sin, I am going to purgatory with fire as hot as hellfire except not for eternity but only until my sins have been purged. The young impressionable mind is stricken with absolute fright.
In the darkness of the dormitory and alone in bed, I am suddenly overcome by cold sweat. Although baptized into the Catholic faith, my poor unsuspecting mother still adheres to her traditional spirituality. A little boy so loves his mother that he never wants to see her hurt. Yet, in these circumstances, she is so precariously close to the door of hell. Satan will take her straight to the fires of eternal suffering never to get out once she is there. Pagans and sinners are condemned souls unless they join the faith. It’s up to me. From here onward, my prayers will be perfectly sincere and ardently pious. You will never see a more dedicated altar boy offering masses served for his mother’s salvation. But what about my daddy who died so suddenly? Would such a kind and loving man go to hell? If he went with a mortal sin, the answer is painfully obvious, I am told. I will never know if my prayers are too late.
My grandparents who had refused baptism because of their traditional beliefs would also be in hell for having spurned the chance to be saved. All my ancestors, for that matter, are in hell because they believed in something other than the only true Church of God. Indeed, so are all sinners and Protestants. Protestants, what are they doing there? Risking wrath but feigning innocence, I once asked in catechism class, “How do we know that ours is the one and only true faith?” My first brimstone and hellfire sermon was to follow. When she calmed down a notch, she called me to the front of the classroom where so many children had been humiliated before. “Spell the word ‘Protestant’,” she yelled. Her mocking tone sounded as though the word was beyond my capabilities to spell. No trouble: P-R-O-T-E-S-T-A-N-T. Now she demanded that the last three letters be struck. The naked word stood exposed. “You see, the Protestants are protesting against the true Word of God,” she proclaimed loudly to make the point. Through no choice of his, one of my brothers had gone to a Protestant residential school. Was he going to hell? “Well, he’s a Protestant is he not? Freddie, you just don’t listen,” she replied with an obvious air of vindication.
At eleven years of age, my curiosity turned into voracious reading in search of some expanded explanations perchance to reinforce my religion. Nothing was forthcoming. We moved on to grades seven and eight at a time when we were also becoming young men and women with the psychobiological changes that come with normal adolescence. More sins, but that’s another story. For me, this was not an easy time. Blind faith was not doing for me what it seemed to do for others. My search became even more desperate. Outside books might do the trick. But my quest ran smack into the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the Catholic List of Prohibited Books. Another priest explained that publications in the list were banned because their topics were those of heresy, moral depravity, and other matter written by atheists, agnostics, and all manner of degenerate philosophers. The List was discontinued in 1966, years after my time of desperation. The books obviously posed a danger to all of us in the faith, and this explained why no outside literature was available. We were being protected. It also explained, in part, why our personal letters to and from the school were censored. But the idea of books on philosophy tweaked my inquisitive mind even more. Father, I sinned in coveting such books. What’s more, I sneaked out of the school in search of them. I sinned again.
We were usually confined to the school grounds and our time was regulated by a regimented schedule. On Saturdays, however, we had no classes and we might then be allowed to go into town with our parents. Otherwise, if we had the money, we might on occasion be escorted to a movie by the supervisor. Rarely did I have money. But on one memorable day, I went with the group and sneaked away during the show for a quick visit to the local library. Under no circumstances was anyone allowed to wander off alone. Breaking this rule would lead to prohibition from ever going into town again in addition to other punishment. When I arrived at the front desk, the matronly librarian pointed me to the children’s section downstairs. But I told her that I was looking for the section on theology and philosophy. She smirked in bemusement. This town was known for its racism and Indians were not simply allowed to enter any public place. And what’s this, an Indian kid looking for philosophy? Every aspect of her demeanour seemed condescending, but she humoured me and led me to a row of books. She bowed her head slightly to allow her glasses to slide down her nose just so far. She peered and pointed her pencil toward the section. At once my heart palpitated with fear and excitement. This time, I had gone way too far. A title jumped out at me: Why I am not a Christian by Bertrand Russell,1 the renowned atheist, but of course unknown to me at the time. This book had to be mine. I stole it. Father, I felt relieved that I was not alone after all. Then another book struck me with awe: Living Philosophies, a collection of personal credos by Einstein2 and other luminaries. There were more books on questions that had caused me so much anguish. Here was the Holy Grail. The hidden treasure was here. The library became a private and secret destination. Father, I sinned and would knowingly continue to do so again and again. I had defied the List of Prohibited Books. I had now eaten of the forbidden fruit!
Father, on the occasions we talked openly, you seemed to understand that mine was a questioning mind. Believing nevertheless that my search was evil, my only recourse was confession and prayer, more penance and contrition, then more prayers. The story of doubting Thomas, the Apostle who had to see and feel the wounds of Christ before he was convinced of the holy resurrection, rang so true to me in my predicament. The mind craved the sanctified truth of Catholicism, but there was also a compelling need to understand. My inquisitiveness did not so much need evidence as it sought plausible explanations to my perplexities. The catechism was so arbitrary, and reasoned discussions never took place. Among many others, there were questions about the Immaculate Conception. The Ascension of Christ needed at least some discussion. There appeared to be a contradiction in an all-forgiving God and his eternal punishment for a temporal sin carried at the time of death. There was a nagging question of predestination versus free will. There was unkindness and intolerance in a Church built on the teachings of Christ who had spoken on behalf of the poor, preached about understanding, and even taught acceptance of human frailties. It was also impossible for me to accept that my ancestors, who had not known about the religion prior to the arrival of the missionaries, could be condemned to hell for not following the Catholic way of life. I was told that these were some of the mysteries that one must simply accept as part of salvation. But by natural disposition, I was not easily given to blind faith.
At fourteen and going into grade nine, I went through what all Catholic boys must go through at one time or another. Your dedication and apparent peace of mind was an inspiration. Father, the priesthood seemed attractive. Here the answers and my life’s work would surely be found. With great surprise, my application to enter the seminary was accepted. But something happened on the way to my Damascus.
Questions about my religion persisted and constituted the most oft-repeated recitations in the confessional. So monotonously recurrent must my sins have become that the priest in the confessional that day finally stirred from his usually passive composure and asked impatiently if this was Freddie. “Yes,” I replied with surprise and nervousness. He admonished sternly, “Why don’t you get these doubts out of your head and be a good Catholic boy like you’re supposed to be.” The forgiving Christ, represented by the priest, suddenly became a scowling human being, indeed a very intense, scolding old man. In the classroom, the use of the name “Freddie” was usually followed by a painful clout to the ears, a deafening shock to the eardrums that left a burning sensation and a lingering hum fading into a distant buzz. My reaction was impulsive and my words came out in a quick defiant whisper: “If I were a good Catholic boy, I wouldn’t be here.” Outside the confessional, this priest doubled as the principal of the school. I was in very deep trouble. “Don’t talk back,” snapped my confessor. “Well, don’t give me hell,” I blurted unaware of my prophetic words. This was a sacrilege, an act of unforgivable irreverence to Christ, the confessional, the sacrament, the priest, and everything the Church stood for. Stunned by my own insolence, I arose and slithered out of the confessional like the condemned serpent banished from the Garden of Eden. I was certain of only one thing, excommunication from the Church leading to eternal damnation. Stepping back into the chapel, the altar bells rang as the chalice was raised in consecration, the most sacred part of the Mass. But instead of all heads bowed in reverence as the wine was being transformed into the blood of Christ, the whole congregation, so it seemed, was turned back toward our commotion in the confessional. This would be my last time in the confessional, although I continued to attend religious ceremonies in this state of mortal sin for the rest of my years in residential school, thus compounding my damnation. This was surely the time to leave school. I no longer belonged here, and I was certain that I no longer belonged in the faith. Yet, Father, I was transferred to another residential school even further from home. I was sent from St. Mary’s in Kenora, Ontario, to St.Paul’s High in Lebret, Saskatchewan.
The Residential School System
Father, I have already made reference to the complicity between the churches and the government. To borrow some sentiment of the times, there were still many wretched souls to be converted and, if the Indians could not be exterminated, many more would be born.
From 1831 to 1998, residential schools into which Indian children were forcibly placed operated across Canada.3 in 1920 allowed for children between the ages of seven and fifteen to be forcibly removed from their parents and placed into these schools. Some families withdrew into their traditional territories to keep their children away from the churches and the school. It then became punishable by law, not only for the children to be out of school, but also for parents to withhold children from attending these schools.
Restrictions on their civil rights meant that “Indians” were not “persons” under the law and therefore had no means of challenging intrusions on their families and communities. For all intents and purposes Indians were considered to be “wards of the government,” and this made it possible and easy for churches to assume legal custody of Indian children in the residential schools. Thus, care and treatment of the children were at the total and unquestioned discretion of the churches and their personnel.
Many changes over the years reflected the various attempts to force assimilation upon us. No amount of brainwashing and punishment had the desired effect of beating the savagery out of us heathens. Certainly there was serious and irreversible damage, but no policy could assimilate us.
Immediately upon entry into the school, the staff began to beat the devil out of us. Such was my experience. We were humiliated out of our culture and spirituality. We were told that these ways were of the devil. We were punished for speaking the only language we ever knew. Fear stalked the dark halls of the school as priests and nuns going about their rounds in black robes passed like floating shadows in the night. Crying from fear was punished by beatings that brought on more crying and then more punishment. Braids were immediately shorn. Traditional clothing was confiscated and replaced by standard issue uniforms. Our traditional names were anglicized and often replaced by numbers. Those who ran away were held in dark closets and fed a bread-and-water diet when they were brought back. Any sense of dignity and self-esteem turned to self-worthlessness and hopelessness. We came to believe that “Indian” was a dirty word, oftentimes calling each other by that term pejoratively. Many of us were physically beaten, sexually fondled, molested, and raped.
The future seemed hopeless. We were incarcerated for no other reason than being Indian. We were deprived of the care, love, and guidance of our parents during our most critical years of childhood. The time we could have learned the critical parenting skills and values was lost to the generations that attended residential schools, the effects of which still haunt us and will continue to have impacts upon our people and communities. In many instances, our role models were the same priests and nuns who were our sexual predators and perpetrators. To be absolutely certain, not all the religious staff committed such sexual atrocities. To their credit, many appeared pure and conscientious in their duties. But having taken their vows of lifelong chastity and celibacy, and even giving them the benefit of any doubt, they were understandably hard-pressed to talk about the act of procreation, personal parenting, and other normal facts of life in a Church that taught us that sex was a taboo subject in school. In fact, there was no such thing as a healthy sex education. Sex was dirty, and even thoughts about sex were sins—matters, indeed, for the confessional. Touching a girl in any way would lead ultimately to “one dirty act,” said the nuns invariably. Once planted in the mind during the formative years of an adolescent boy, this notion was insidiously inescapable, even sounding implausible. The psychological damage was done. Many fathers to this day are unable to express their love to their children, especially their daughters. Personally, I was not able to hug or kiss my mother until she was seventy-three, the final year of her life.
Father, I tried to rationalize what I saw and experienced. The treatment of children, as horrific as it was, must have been our normal lot for having been the pagan sinners that we had been. Was everything all right? Was it even humane? None of us had any idea as to what the law was regarding children but somehow there was a general feeling that it did not apply to us anyway. Even the crown attorney from town was in the chapel for Mass every Sunday. So things must have been all right, not known, or condoned. Besides, we were afraid to say anything to anyone outside the school. Would anybody believe us anyway? If we told our parents, and they came to our rescue, the police would be called to arrest them. If that were not enough, we were told that violence committed or intended against a person of the cloth was an unforgivable sin deserving of immediate condemnation into hell, but it seemed permissible for them to touch us. Those students who were sexually abused suffered a trauma so severe that it affected them, not only then, but also for the rest of their lives. Uncomfortable as it was, we kept quiet. We would abide the unwritten code among the students: never rat.
Because I came to hate everyone connected to the school and the religion—the nuns, priests, brothers, and the staff—I committed a sin. For that, I repent. And for the times I blamed God for the pain and anguish that we were going through and allowed myself to think in anger that he was mean and wicked, I sinned against him. I am deeply remorseful. For all the things that I personally saw and experienced and knew were wrong but did not report to the authorities, I committed an act of complicity. To all the students in residential schools who were with me and have now passed on, I sincerely regret that I did not fight harder at the time.
Would this nightmare ever end? Finally, after over one hundred and sixty years, the actual nightmare ended. In 1998, the last residential school was shut down, but the aftershocks continue.
My Personal Reconciliation
Father, I have shared much with you that needed to be said. Respectfully, I am not seeking penance and far be it for me to deny hell. I have seen it. It is here and it is man-made. Forgive me if you must and pray for me. But it is reconciliation that I seek—between you and me and our respective peoples. We need to build a new future. You have also glimpsed into my own reconciliation, the note upon which we should leave for now.
Personal reconciliation is making peace with one’s own self and reclaiming one’s identity. Through the kindness of the Creator, I am at peace with myself. I have returned to Midewewin, the principal spirituality of the Anishinaabe. I have come to understand and respect the interconnectedness of all life, and I am very happy with my place in creation, humble as it is. Mine are the gifts of life so sacredly conferred upon my ancestors by the Creator. Through this spirituality, mine also are the experiences that have rendered insights into life’s eternal questions: whence, what, whither, and why.
I am contentedly reconciled to traditional spirituality as my living philosophy. Now, mine is an unconditional wish to reach out and help people on the basis of my culture and traditional ways. I have received the honour of being referred to as an Elder, a custodian of traditions, customs, laws, and spirituality. May I be forever worthy of those who wish to claim the traditional teachings that are theirs through me and other elders. May I continue to be deserving of the privilege of receiving youth who seek strength, courage, and enlightenment through my ceremonies. Having nothing to teach you but much to share, I reach out to you also and the other players in the legacy of the residential schools.
A government founded on peace, order, and good government and yet responsible for inflicting the horror of the residential school system is one that I am prepared to meet with to discuss the rule of law that includes enforcement of Aboriginal rights and treaties as the basis for a reconciled future. A church that validated the ruthless superiority complex of European monarchs to persecute Indigenous people, steal their land, and overrun their cultures by condemning them as ways of the devil is one I am also prepared to discuss reconciliation with. My willingness to do this is based on having sincere regard for the seven traditional laws of Creation. A clergy abiding a faith founded on the teachings of Christ, who so loved the purity and innocence of children, yet whose own agents inflicted sexual and physical abuse on Aboriginal children are men and women I am prepared to meet in my community to discuss reconciliation. And should they still believe in hell, may they be spared. Yes, Father, I am prepared.
In ultimate personal reaffirmation, it was not God that hurt generations of innocent children, but the human beings in the churches who undertook to deliver Christianity and inflicted the sorrow in His name. It is not my right or prerogative to forgive what was done to my brothers, my sisters, and my dearest friends as they must speak for themselves and, unfortunately, many of them are now dead. Nevertheless, I dedicate this statement of reconciliation to their memory. I can speak for myself, Father. I am happy that my ancestors saw fit to bring their sacred beliefs underground when they were banned and persecuted. Because of them and the Creator, the ways of my people are alive and in them I have found my answers.
I gratefully proclaim that I am a dedicated adherent of traditional spirituality of the Anishinaabe.
I am a born again pagan.
Fred Kelly is from the Ojibways of Onigaming and is a citizen of the Anishinaabe Nation in Treaty Number Three. He is a member of Midewewin, the Sacred Law and Medicine Society of the Anishinaabe. He is a custodian of Sacred Law and has been called upon to conduct ceremonies across Canada and in the United States, Mexico, Japan, Argentina, and Israel. He is head of Nimishomis-Nokomis Healing Group Inc., a consortium of spiritual healers and Elders that provides therapy to victims of the trauma and the horrific legacy of the residential school system. Fred is a survivor of St. Mary’s Residential School in Kenora, Ontario, and St. Paul’s High School in Lebret, Saskatchewan. He was a member of the Assembly of First Nations team that negotiated the historic Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and continues to advise on its implementation. He has served as chief of his own community, grand chief of the Anishinaabe Nation in Treaty Number Three, and Ontario regional director of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. Fred is fluent in the Anishinaabe and English languages and is a personal advisor to numerous First Nation leaders.
Confessions of a Born Again Pagan is written in the form of a confession. The author, now a distinguished Elder, imagines himself back in the confessional he permanently vacated at the age of fourteen. He recounts his early years in residential school and examines European ideologies and Canadian history as a way of understanding what happened to him as a boy and to his ancestors in the centuries before his birth. As a counterbalance to his early indoctrination in Catholic cosmology, he presents the Anishinaabe creation story. Fred described the thinking behind his article in the following way:
Reconciliation processes can be personal and societal. In the personal sense, reconciliation is the means by which one regains peace with oneself. Collective reconciliation is the process that brings adversaries to rebuild peaceful relations and a new future together. Both form the thrust of this narrative specifically on the legacy of the Indian residential schools and the conflicting interests among the policy makers, the operators, and the Survivors of that system. ↩
- Russell, Bertrand (1957). Why I Am Not a Christian, and other essays on religion and related subjects. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster. ↩
- Einstein, Albert (1931). Living Philosophies: A series of intimate credos. Brooklyn, NY: AMS Press Inc. ↩
- Forced attendance was legislated in 1920 for children aged 7–15, although there are stories of children as young as age five being taken as well as accounts of forced removal before 1920. ↩