Expressions of Faith

Indigenous beliefs and practices predate all other expressions of faith in Calling Lake and continue to be practiced. As traders and settlers came north, Catholic, Protestant and Mennonite missions added to the mix. We have not yet explored the full range of beliefs, missions and churches that put down roots here over time, and welcome input from anyone with memories to share. Meanwhile, we hope you enjoy browsing through what has come our way.

Indigenous Spirituality ​

The spiritual beliefs carried forward by Indigenous and peoples from generations past vary widely, as do contemporary beliefs and cultural practices. Yet commonalities exist among Indigenous spiritual traditions, including the presence of creation stories, humanity’s interconnectivity and need to balance with nature, the role of tricksters or supernatural beings and the importance of sacred organizations and rituals. Traditional activities and ways of life, such as hunting and feasting, are often infused with spiritual meaning. Examples include the Wihkohtowin (ritual feast) described below and the understanding that Memeguayiwahk (little people) live in caves and sandhills along water bodies. We have heard that little people lived along the Calling Lake riverbank, near what are now the cultural grounds, but since Indigenous people have moved from there the little people have as well. We are seeking the guidance of community elders to correct and add to the few descriptions and examples of Indigenous spirituality included here.

A Composite Description of the Wihkohtowin

Excerpted from “The Wihkohtowin: Ritual Feasting among Cree and Métis Peoples in Northern Alberta” Clinton N. Westman, University of Saskatchewan, Anthropologica, Vol. 57, No. 2, 2015, pp. 299-314
The wihkohtowin combines dancing, feasting, sacrificing, singing, drumming, praying, gifting, blessing and healing …. The ritual was widely undertaken in spring and fall (also perhaps in midsummer, as some of my informants suggested), at important seasonal gathering sites. It was a major feature of social life, building solidarity among small bands throughout the season of their largest gatherings. It continues to serve an integrative function by honouring relations to ancestors and the spirit world, blessing medicines and sacralizing items of personal power such as bundles, bringing them into the rhythm of the seasons and of plant life. Apart from its seasonality and relation to plant life, the ceremony ties into the rhythms of the universe in other ways, in that the dancers’ movements mimic the sun, the ritual is frequently held at the full moon and the ceremony typically starts at sundown and ends at sunrise. In these respects, both the contemplation and practice of the wihkohtowin tend toward and evoke circular, recursive and self-referential symbolism of a primal nature.
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Little People, Ma-ma-kwa-se-sak or Memeguayiwahk

Excerpted from “Metis Folklore: Little People, Ma-ma-kwa-se-sak or Memeguayiwahk” Compiled by Lawrence Barkwell Coordinator of Metis Heritage and History Research, Louis Riel Institute
It is the belief of Métis and other Aboriginal people that the “Little People” live along riverbanks, the sand hills by large lakes and in caves. They like to live under rock. They are responsible for making the pictographs drawn on the rock-faces along the edge of the Cambrian shield. The “Little People” are there to protect you; if you see one your luck will change. If you feel sad or sick, you will feel better. Sometimes they venture into urban areas, mostly to visit the Native people. They are the reason your everyday objects go missing. They are said to particularly like shiny objects and will take tin foil or spoons and other cutlery out of people’s homes. They also like to eat sweets. For this reason Metis will put out sugar, candies and tobacco as offerings to them in places they are known to frequent. If one is camping on a lake shoreline and hears noises coming from the ground at night this is believed to be the Little People working.
The Cree People: Resource for social studies
As one step toward redressing the dearth of learning about Indigenous spirituality and culture, Alberta Education and the Tribal Chiefs Institute, Treaty 6 First Nation, collaborated to publish The Cree People in 1997. The book explores how culture shapes attitudes and behaviors and gives students an opportunity to discover their roots. Written by Dr. Phyllis Cardinal for Grade 7 social studies students, its launch was supported by conference workshops and lectures for teachers. The book draws in part from many hours with Elder Agatha Cardinal from Saddle Lake, whose stories became the conversation between grandmother and granddaughter, providing valuable insight into the Cree culture. One photo in the book depicts a pipe ceremony held at Calling Lake.
Albert Auger, (holding pipe), Marvin Nipshank (in blue shirt) and Gerald Johnson (black shir) engage in a pipe ceremony at Calling Lake. The photo is included in The Cree People, a social studies text written by Phyllis Cardinal

The Church of St. Léon le Grand

History of Calling Lake Catholic Church​

Thanks to the Kito Sakahekan Seniors Society, and especially Av Mann, we have an account Calling Lake’s first Catholic Church in the book titled The Church of St. Léon le Grand: A History of the Catholic Church and Early Families of Calling Lake, Alberta. The book describes the congregation’s beginnings this way:

Excerpted from The Church of St. Léon le Grand, chapters 5 and 6

The Roman Catholic Church, as a physical entity, came rather late to Calling Lake. The first church building was not completed until 1948, and this not blessed until 1951. To the south, a Catholic church had been established at Athabasca in 1891 – half a century earlier – although it had no permanent staff until 1905. To the north, Father Alphonse Desmarais was the first Catholic missionary in the area known today as Wabasca-Desmarais, arriving in 1891. Reverend J.B. Giroux established a permanent mission at Wabasca in 1896.

Although a permanent structure was lacking, this is not to say there were not efforts to service the Calling Lake area prior to 1948. According to the Athabasca Herald, Jean Baptiste Gambler married his wife Adelaide Mayas (daughter of Jean Baptiste Mayas and Marie Anne Misinisikapaw) in Calling Lake in 1903. They were married by Oblate J. B. Giroux who had also baptized Adelaide in Calling Lake in 1890. This event, and others like it, would have taken place in local Calling Lake homes.

In 1908, Reverend Pétour, based at Wabasca, attempted to build a church at Calling Lake beside the cemetery. However, his efforts were destroyed by a W. Webbs, who owned land adjacent to the proposed church site. No other explanation of this dispute survives today. Priests from the Wabasca area or from Smith continued to provide services to the community.

Church resources were likely another reason for the delay in establishing a permanent base in Calling Lake. In 1905, the official status of the Catholic Church in Canada and the United States was changed from being a “mission” church, and thus receiving funding for its operation, to being an “independent” church having to finance its own operation. This change presented great difficulties in many areas. Additionally, with the cathedral built at McLennan in 1946, local church resources were likely strained. Nonetheless, in 1941, Bishop Langlois gave Reverend Guimont, then stationed at the mission in Wabasca-Desmarais, approval to build a church of “squared off logs” at Calling Lake.

Bishop Langlois
Father Guimont
Father Guimont was a young man at the time, having just taken his first vows in Quebec in 1935. He was ordained in 1938. (He died in Quebec in 1978.) Although he had received approval to build the church in 1941, it took a few years to acquire the funds needed. In 1943, Father Guimont received a donation of $140.00 (and an engraved chalice) from the Canadian Fathers of Extension (today known as Catholic Missions in Canada). This group of Ministers raised funds, largely from central urban Canada, to support the development of missions in more rural areas of the country.
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The St. Léon Le Grand congregation continues to worship in Calling Lake. Part of the Catholic Archdioceses of Grouard-McLennan, the congregation is served by Pastor Rev. Stanislaus Okonkwo,, from Wabasca, Alberta. Mass is held in Calling Lake the third Sunday of the month at 4 p.m.
Catholic Church memorial and photos of the original church (completed in 1947) before and after the addition of a bell tower

Mennonite Voluntary Service Unit​

Between 1955 and 1969, a Mennonite Voluntary Service Unit set up headquarters in Calling Lake, attracted by a promise of help from Slim Ellefson. The Ellefsons were moving their sawmill to Calling Lake, which did not have a Protestant church then, and hoped the Mennonites would offer a worship community for their extended family. (Watch our Forestry room for more about Ellefson sawmill history.)

Responding to community need, the Mennonite volunteers’ work expanded over time to encompass health care, transportation, employment, a church and more. Some volunteers remained after the unit left and blended into the community. Among them was Hilda (Eby) Crawford, a nurse; for decades, she attended many of the community’s births.

Ike and Millie Glick, who led the service unit in the early days, have written a book about the experience, aptly named Risk & Adventure. Click herefor a summary of the book, augmented by recent interviews with Ike.

Risk & Adventure: Community Development in Northern Alberta

“Stanley Crawford recalled walking down the pack trails following the telegraph line to Athabasca. On the way back home they would build a scow to float their supplies down the Athabasca to Calling River. Next was walking the twenty four miles to Calling Lake. They were back again the next day with the team and wagon to pick up the supplies.” – Evergreen Yearbook, 1966-1967
The Buick ambulance that brought John and Millie Glick to Calling Lake in 1955 with their son John. Photo: Ike Glick
Ike Glick learned to fly while in Calling Lake, the better to serve isolated communities in the north. Paul Nafziger, who volunteered with his family in the summer of 1957, later described the situation as follows: “Ike somehow came up with a small Piper Cub plane. Slim [Ellefson] bulldozed out a landing strip, and we chopped away some of the taller brush around the strip. A hanger was made of logs and slab wood. Nothing fancy, but it seemed to work pretty good.”
Photo: Nafziger family

Members of the Mennonite Voluntary Service Unit compiled a binder of memories fifty years later, when they gathered for a reunion. Paul Nafziger’s description of his family’s summer in Calling Lake in 1957 provides glimpses of the volunteers at work and play. To read about other volunteers who served at Calling Lake, click on MVS 50th anniversary binder – Calling Lake

Ike and Millie Glick with their son Edgar outside the Mennonite Voluntary Service house. Photo: Ike Glick
Ike and Millie Glick’s five children. From left: Jan (8), Pat (1), John (12), James (2), Eric (6). Photo: Ike Glick

Calling Lake Community Church

Another church active in Calling Lake today is Calling Lake Community Church, led by Pastor Nathan Gullion. In January 2022, the Calling Lake Community Health Services building was purchased to serve as both church and community centre. Following renovations, the congregation began worshipping there in May 2022. Previously, they were meeting at the Jay-Bird Arena and Recreation Complex, at no cost.

The church grew out of a Sunday School and Vacation Bible school ministry begun by the Athabasca Reformed Church in 1998. By 2014, the Athabasca congregation was hiring a youth and outreach workers to run programs in Calling Lake. Nathan Gullion joined the team in 2019, first as a student seminarian and now as full-time pastor.

Gullion grew up with an alcoholic father and ended up travelling the dark road of addiction, despair, homelessness and imprisonment before going to Taylor Seminary and finding his place in ministry. “I was a very troubled individual,” he says.

A member of the Bigstone Cree Nation, Gullion’s ministry includes food deliveries, transportation and lots of listening, in a way that merges traditional Indigenous ways with Christianity. “I play drum music, I burn sweetgrass, it’s a little bit more informal,” he says. He also uses his own story to counsel others battling similar demons, including drugs and alcohol. As he puts it, “I can tell you with all certainty, you can actually live a fulfilled life without all of that.”

For recent and upcoming events, see the Calling Lake Community Church Facebook group.

Calling Lake Church exterior (left) and interior (right). Source: Calling Lake Community Church Facebook
Nathan Gullion, pastor of Calling Lake Community Church


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Land Acknowledgement

Recognizing that we are all Treaty people, equally responsible to know our shared history and journey forward in good faith, we acknowledge with respect that Calling Lake stands on land, and alongside water, where Indigenous peoples have gathered, hunted, fished and held ceremonies from time immemorial. Knowing that J.B. Gambler Indian Reserve #183 is part of Bigstone Cree Nation within Treaty 8 Territory, and that we are within Métis Nation of Alberta District 22, we wish to understand the spirit and intent of promises made so that we can take action to create a just and caring future built on truth and reconciliation.

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