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Diocese of


Arsène Turquetil OMI (1876-1955)

By: Rev. Armand Clabaut OMI

Full text of his memories about Bishop Turquetil is to be found in the Eskimo Magazine, issue from December 1955, pages 3-11.

Memories we present here were composed by Rev. Armand Clabaut OMI and were published in Eskimo Magazine, issue from December 1955, pages 3-11.

First Bishop of the Inuit

Bishop Arsene Turquetil OMI

At the time of his visit to Baker Lake (see column on the right side of the page), Bishop was at the peak of his strength and activities. Having arrived in Bishop Pascal's Vicariate of Saskatchewan in 1900, he had been sent to a mission at Reindeer Lake. Old Father Gasté, who had been in charge there for a long time, had welcomed the young missionary with open arms: for more than twenty years he had been waiting for someone to come and look after the northern Inuit.

All of us knew some of the experiences which marked, from 1901-1906, his first contacts with the Inuit of the interior... Days of famine while searching for camps... He once had cut a hole in the ice and bitten into a live fish which he had caught; ashamed, he then looked about to see if anyone had seen him... Epic struggle against Inuit sorcerers surrounding a dying youth whom only the presence of priest seemed able to calm. His imperturbable composure and unfailing good humor saved his life: “All your spirits can do anything against me. You can kill me as you would a caribou, but another will come to take my place”.

In 1910 the Keewatin Vicariate was formed and Father Turquetil was chosen by Bishop Charlebois to prepare the foundation of a mission in Inuit country. We knew of the enormous difficulties he was obliged to face during the first five years at Chesterfield Inlet. Everything was against him: the mockery of the Inuit, the attitude and conduct of the few whites in the country...

Mission in Chesterfield Inlet

Statue of the Sacred Heart Set Up in Chesterfield Inlet by Arsene Turquetil

In 1915, the supply ship Nascopie did not even come to bring in their supplies and the annual mail: that year they were very cold. His first companion, Father Leblanc OMI, worn out through physical privations and moral deceptions felt ill: the shock and grief caused by the war were partly responsible for his untimely death. (...)

Father Turquetil had set up in front of the mission a large statue of the Sacred Heart: on the base he had carved out this invocation: “Sacred Heart of Jesus, bless the Inuit”. One day, Jesus placed in his path she who was to become the cause of the awaited miracle. Two letters arrived from Lisieux, bringing to Chesterfield the first echoes of the life and miracles of Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus. No one ever knew who sent them nor how they managed to reach their destination. That day, Saint Theresa entered Inuit history. She was to bring to baptism the first seventeen and soon to become known to everyone under the name of Theresinar.

Apostolic Prefect

In July 1925 Rome established the Apostolic Prefecture of Hudson Bay and Father Turquetil bacame the first Apostolic Prefect. One and a half million square miles!... His mission field was greatly enlarged and covered the most vast ecclesiastic territory in the world. In this immense Arctic waste, seven or eight thousand Inuit, northern nomads, whom he must reach at the cost of enormous difficulties and considerable expense. The personel of the new Prefecture consisted of five Oblate missionaries. The first act of the Apostolic Prefect was to go to Lisieux and dedicate his immense mission to St. Theresa. (...)

When, in 1942, he was obliged to retire, he left in the Vicariate thirty missionaries spread through twelve main missions, from Churchill, in the south, to the magnetic pole and the north of Baffin Island. (...)

His Childhood

Bishop Arsene Turquetil OMI

Born at Reviers, Calvados (Northern France), on July 3, 1876, little Arsène Louis Eugène was orphaned at a very early age. Adopted by the nuns of the parish, he there formed his first ideas of a missionary vocation. Like his Norman ancestors, he dreamed of long voyages and adventures in China or other far-off places and confided his childish desires to “all the Blessed Virgin” he prayed to. Providence placed in his path a charitable family who undertook to help him and assure his studies at the preparatory school. It was there, when he was ten, that he met his first Oblate missionary, Bishop Melizan of Ceylon. “Now” said the Bishop to the youths gathered around him, “which of you is coming with me?”

“Me” cried young Arsène. And bounding up to the bishop, he asked him if he should wear his uniform when he left.

Very intelligent, gifted with a prodigious memory, he easily maintained his place among the first in his classes. But he was mischievous and always ready to play tricks. One day, he even went so far as to climb to the roof of the seminary and plug the superior's chimney, thus smoking him out of his office.

“You wish to become a missionary”, his director said to him, “you think you'll be able to stand anything and yet you can't stay still for even few minutes”.

“I will try”, answered the young boy.

Two days later, the superior called him and asked him if he were ill or thinking up more tricks.

“No”, replied Arsène, “I'm just trying to be good”.

Oblate Missionary

The First Mission in Chesterfield Inlet

Forty two years of missionary activity during which he was to put into practice what he often gave us as a rule of conduct: “Know well what you wish to do: do it with all your heart and, no matter what happens, never get discouraged”.

Father Gasté, indicating the North had said: “There are Inuit there; look after them”.

He put all his intelligence, his will, his diplomacy and his great spirit of faith toward realizing their conversion. At Reindeer Lake, he prepares his first contacts, makes the first attempts at evangelizing, baptizes the first children. At Chesterfield, he founds the first little Inuit Christian community. Later, as Prefect and Apostolic Vicar, he directs the magnificent development of these missions.

The leading light of his life was always that first intention followed with unshakable will power: the conversion of the Inuit. Everything he did was done with equal application of spirit and faith, as though on each action depended the success of the entire undertaking.

Studies of Inuktituk

He was gifted with an uncommon capacity of work. Alone, he deciphered the secrets of the Inuktituk language. In 1916, when he was composing catechism and prayers for the first catechumens, Brother Girard had to make him take some recreation in spite of himself. At Baker Lake, in 1938, in three weeks and without a single note, he composed the grammar of Inuktituk, still in use in the Vicariate(...).

Care for the Missions

He himself looked after all the annual requisitions for the missions, buying the supplies and supervising the loading. He discussed the invoices point by point with the Hudson's Bay Company. (...)

In 1929, short of missionaries, he obtained from Pope Pius XI the indult necessary to ordain Brother Girard, whom he sent to found the mission at Pond Inlet. (...)

In 1939, Father Joseph Buliard accidentally froze his hands. He sacrificed all the ready funds of the Vicariate to send a plane to Repulse Bay. The doctors wished to amputate the Father's hands; he replied simply that this was out of the question. We watched him, that evening of the first Friday of the month, telephone all the religious communities in Montreal to recommend this intention to their prayers during the holy hour. Father Buliard had his hands saved , and, without him asking, the Society for the Propagation of Faith of the Diocese of Boston paid all the expenses of having sent the plane.

Looking for Benefactors

Bishop Turquetil has traveled considerably in Canada and the United States. His zeal, good humor, originality, humorous stories and missionary adventures had won him many friends. He often visited his benefactors and the evenings spent with them formed part of his ministry: was it not their charity which helped his missions?...

Such an original personality could not have only friends. He also had his faults. But those who judged him on his defects alone have shown that they knew only a very small part of his nature so rich from the human as well as the natural point of view.

Cancer and Retirement in Washington

Missionary and bishop of the Inuit, he was perhaps even more so during the last ten years when he was living in retirement at the scholasticate of Washington. For them and for his missionaries, he accepted everything with a smile and good humor: retirement, obscurity, the sacrifice of never seeing again those to whom he had consecrated his life. The terrible cancer, from which he had suffered for so long without mentioning it to anyone and which finally carried him off, was the last sacrifice of his apostolate for the Inuit. (...)

Father Crump OMI, superior of Washington Scholasticate, said: “To know him was to love him”.

And all of us, his missionaries, who knew him with all his human and Oblate qualities, can only join in this praise.

We could not help but love him.

A Story About Bishop's Visit to Baker Lake

Baker Lake, Good Friday 1928 - We had just finished the Stations of the Cross... With the three Christians of the place, we had taken part in the general mourning of Christendom. The wind came howling across the frozen lake, shaking the walls of the building and adding to the huge banks of snow which already reached the roof . We did not dare venture out.

Outside the dog howled...

A traveler entered: his Inuit clothing of fur was covered with snow. The only visible features through the frozen mask were two black eyes and the tip of a partly frozen nose. Who could travel in such weather?

Father Rio approached, saying a few words of welcome in inuktituk to the stranger... Then, after a moment's hesitation, he burst out laughing: “But!...It is the Bishop!...”

The previous autumn, Bishop Turquetil had send us to found the mission at Baker Lake. He had come to supervise the installation and help us build the greater part of the house. Upon his departure on the police boat he said: “I will come back during the winter to see how things are going”... So, he had returned to see how we were getting along.

The long trip from Chesterfield to Baker Lake, via Eskimo Point [today's Arviat], had taken eight weeks. Both men and dogs had undergone severe trials, in the blizzards and shortage of food.

“We nearly camped a short distance from here,” he told us while carefully removing the icicles stuck in his beard... “For several hours, we had been traveling on the lake without knowing where we were. It would be impossible to continue much longer facing the raging blizzard.” I said to little Saint Theresa: “I will recite a decade of the rosary: if during that time no land mark is sighted, I will give the order to camp. At the end of the decade, through a sudden calm, we saw the mission and here we are...”

His beard cleared of icicles and his traveling clothes removed, the Bishop lit his pipe.

In 1928, we were spending our first Inuit winter at Baker Lake. We did not know the language nor had we any experience of all the material things of which life in this country consists. Bishop Turquetil came to us rich in his veteran experience, rich in the deep affection of his heart. He was to spend five weeks with us.

Never before was Easter celebrated with more missionary fervor. The Pascal Mass was pontifically sung in the mission kitchen. A piece of fresh pork, gracious gift of the post manager, agreeably enhanced the dinner menu, and in order that it would be done just right, the Bishop himself supervised the cooking.

One day, he said to us: “Your bread is not good... You will ruin your stomachs eating that: I'll show you how to make good bread.”

The next day, rolling up his shirt sleeves, we watched him mix the flour and yeast, knead the dough, place it in the pans and remove from the oven good bread, well risen and golden brown.