First Nations lay people within the church were often called upon to lead a congregation in the absence of an ordained minister. Sometimes it would be years before a priest would visit a community and, in the interim, these devout lay people provided day to day spiritual guidance for their community. A number of catechists went go on to be ordained deacons and even ministers. They were essential for the continuity of the church in remote communities. Following are brief biographies of some of the more notable Gwitchin catechists.
Julius Kendi was born in the Peel River country. A dedicated church worker, he was ordained as a catechist by Bishop Stringer in 1910. Kendi was sent to many communities in the Yukon. He was instrumental in helping to establish the Na-Cho Nyak Dun community at Mayo in 1916. His wife Persis organized the first Women’s Auxiliary there. In 1918, Julius was ordained as Deacon at Moosehide near Dawson City. From there he was sent to the head of the Peel River. Over the years, he was regularly reassigned but was in Old Crow from 1929–41. At that time, Persis Kendi began the Women’s Auxilliary with 35 members in a village of 200 people. The Kendis returned to Old Crow briefly in 1946. Julius Kendi passed away in Dawson City in 1948.
Amos Njootli was ordained in 1911 as a deacon by Bishop Stringer. His first posting was as full-time minister at Rampart House in 1911. He arrived at the onset of a suspected smallpox epidemic and was put into quarantine on a nearby island where he set up a big tent for holding services. Reverend Njootli was well liked, spoke Gwich'in and spent winters out on the land, holding church services for his travelling congregation. He died at Rampart House in 1923.
Joe Kikavichik, or Joe K, epitomized the importance of the First Nations catechists in the work of the Anglican Church in the North. As Reverend Exham said of him:
Missionaries have come and gone in Old Crow, but Joseph Kikavichik has carried on this important ministry through it all, for 50 years.
When Joe K. was a boy, he assisted his father John Kikavichik who was also a catechist. Together they travelled to the scattered camps of the Gwich'in to hold services and minister to their spiritual needs. One of Joe’s jobs was to go from tent to tent gathering up people for the services. He eventually bought his own Bible, Prayer Book and Hymnal in the Takudh language. In recognition of his dedication and outstanding qualities, in 1918, Bishop Stringer asked Joe to carry on the services in Old Crow. It was a duty he performed for over 50 years.
Joe also ministered to the family needs of his community as chief and taught his own children to read Takudh. One of his children, Ellen Bruce, carried on his work after he died in 1972.
Ellen Bruce was the daughter of Joe Kikavichik, a catechist. She was born at Rampart House in 1911 and moved from camp to camp with her family. While her father ministered to the spiritual needs of the Vuntut Gwitchin while ollowing the seasonal round of hunting and fishing. Her father taught her to read and conduct church services from an early age. When the family moved to Old Crow, Ellen became more deeply involved in the Church through the Women’s Auxiliary established by Persis Kendi. She moved permanently to Old Crow in 1949 and dedicated more time to the Church. After her father died in 1972, she assumed many of his responsibilities. In the early 1980s, she was licensed as a lay reader along with Edith Josie, Charlie Peter Charlie and Effie Linklater. Ellen was ordained as deacon in 1984 and, with the encouragement of Bishop Ferris, was ordained priest in 1987. She became the first First Nations woman in the North ordained in the Anglican Church.
In 1986 she received an honourary Doctor of Divinity from St. Stephen’s College (University of Alberta) and, in 1990, Ellen was awarded the Order of Canada. The citation read:
The spiritual leader of Old Crow and the North's first native woman to be ordained an Anglican minister, she has sustained and promoted the cultural integrity of the Vuntut Gwitch'in for over 50 years, helping them adapt from camp life to community life.
She was a strong and holy woman who had a powerful impact on indigenous people and non-indigenous alike. Ellen Bruce died in 2010 at the age of 98.
Effie Linklater was the granddaughter of Robert McDonald. She knew from the time she was a young girl attending St. Paul’s Anglican Hostel in Dawson City that she wanted to dedicate her life to the church. She was called back to Old Crow, however, to follow a traditional life, and she married and raised a family. Through this time, she was faithful to the church and active in the Women’s Auxiliary. In 1989, she was ordained as a deacon and led services in the Old Log Church (St. Simon’s) in Whitehorse.
She was born in Eagle, Alaska and moved to Old Crow in 1940 at the age of 16. Edith Josie gained renown for her weekly newspaper column in the Whitehorse Star, "Here Are the News" in which she painted pictures of life in Old Crow in her own voice. A devout churchgoer, she became a lay reader. In 1995, she received the Order of Canada and, in 2000, the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for her writing and contributions to Gwich'in culture. Edith passed away in 2010.
A group of Anglican clergy at the Eigth Synod of the Diocese of Yukon. In the front row, from left to right, are:
Rev. A.C. McCallum, Rev. Julius Kendi, Mrs. Frances (Persis) Kendi, Rev. John Martin, and Mrs. Martin.
In the back row, from left to right, are:
Rev. H.C.M. Grant, Rev. G.A. Cross, Rev. A. Anderson, Bishop William Geddes, Rev. Richard Martin, Canon A.J. (others unidentified)
YA, Anglican Church Archives 9671
Persis and Julius Kendi
YA, Anglican Church of Canada, General Synod Archives fonds, 78/67, #165
Yukon Archives, George and Margaret Hamilton Fonds, 89/38 #25.
Reverend Ellen Bruce.
Angela Wheelock courtesy of Up Here Magazine.
Left to right: Lay reader Edith Josie, Catechist Effie Linklater and the Rev. Ellen Bruce visit Mary Thomas (centre) and her son Jerome (rear).
YA, Anglican Church Coll. 94/78 #261