The Man of the Aurora Borealis

A Portrait of Fr. Joseph BARIL, OMI

Father Joseph Baril arrived in the missions of northern Canada in 1952. He tells about the happy and full life he lived with the native people.

Some people have an air of eternal youth. And yet, they have not had plastic surgery. Its as if time had no effect on them despite the fact that they age as everyone does. This youth seems to have its source in a heart that is simple and overflowing with love. Is this to say that love is a sort of Fountain of Youth? That is what one tends to think when meeting Fr. Joseph Baril, OMI.

Fr. Baril is not a giant and he carries his 83 years very well. He is still alert and witty. He still criss-crosses the North four times a year to replace the missionaries or to visit the places that no longer have a priest. And he has just written a small book that contains a part of his memoirs as a missionary.

A native of Saint-Narcisse-de-Champlain, in Mauricie, the desire to be a missionary took root when Joseph Baril was still a child. It was after having read Apôtres inconnus(Unknown Apostles) that tells about the life of the Oblate Brothers in North that young Joseph, then ten years old, got the yearning for the missions among the Indians. He even had to go against the will of his mother who wanted him to go to the Franciscans’ college, because she belonged to the Third Order of Saint Francis.

The son of a farmer, young Joseph Baril remembers what a sacrifice it was to leave his father’s fields in order to continue his studies at the Seminary in Trois-Rivières. “I had grown up on this land and I can say that I liked the soil and farm work. The farm was a good school. Manual work did not tire me. I was ready to get up at four o’clock in summer to go mow. I was able develop, at that time, all kinds of abilities not uncommon to human life. I must say that a poet was lying dormant in me. I let myself be charmed by the sunrises and the sunsets. The trees of the forest seemed to dictate messages to me. Moreover, I always feel at ease in woods.”

A young enthusiastic missionary 
It is at the Central Patricia mission, among the Ojibway of James Bay, that Joseph Baril was initiated into missionary life. It was in a summer that was neither hot nor cold, that the young missionary went to work on the construction of a small church and residence at Saint Joseph Lake. The missionaries of those times had to be ready to do all the manual duties related to evangelization. Joseph never tired. He remembers the long distances that he travelled by boat, on foot and on snowshoes in winter.

Some of these excursions could have cost him his life. One day, Joseph Baril had promised an Indian to go celebrate Mass at his camp about ten kilometers from the village. “I was ready to go early in the afternoon. The Brothers convinced me to wait until the train of tractors was ready. The preparations took a long time, so that the train left at 4 p.m. One hour later, I left them to go to the camp. Alas, it was already getting dark. I followed the instructions but this large river forms a delta at its mouth. It is very difficult to find one’s way through all these islands. I wasn’t sure where I was any more. I had to make some tea. I was surrounded by alders. This wood is not good for making a fire. I knew that the Brothers had felled some trees not very far away. I found the place and was able to boil some water. It was -35 degrees. I decided to return to the village and got back to the presbytery at midnight. Fr Alain welcomed me, saying that the Indian’s son had told him that he would have been very surprised if I had found his father’s camp, because he himself did not always manage to be find it. I will always remember this trip to nowhere, under the starlit night.”

Joseph Baril had not panicked. “I was sometimes bold. I am optimistic by nature and this character trait undoubtedly helped me on several occasions during my life.” Life with the Indians was good. “They accepted us with respect. It was almost a hundred years that we had been with them. These men did not have the same practices as us. That could be a cultural shock to surmount. I however remember them as men and women who lived a very convincing Christian life. It was not unusual to spend several hours in the confessional in a small village. They always distinguished the sins carefully. I believe they had received a Christian education marked by Jansenism.”

The cold never bothered Joseph Baril. He describes himself as a man well adjusted to the winter and the cold. The long winter nights in the North Country did not displease him. He saw them even as an advantage because the rhythm of activities was less intense.

A lot of water has run over the dam since then and relations with the autochthons have changed. The question of physical and sexual aggression in the Indian residential schools makes the headlines today. Joseph Baril lived in two of these schools and he says firmly and with conviction that he never saw such actions by his confreres. He says that he literally fell off his chair when he heard the news that fellow Oblates in the West had asked pardon for the aggressions made towards the Amerindians. “We discussed it heatedly at a meeting. Other members shared my opinion. I had the feeling of belonging to a group of scoundrels. It is really a difficult question. I do not know where the true answers are. I still meet Indians and I am very well received. Indians have the reputation of being faithful when contact is made. They come to see me on August 15 at Cap-de-la-Madeleine. At the right time, I believe it will be necessary to accept to make peace.”

A new kind of missionary 
Joseph Baril now travels thousands of kilometers a year to replace missionaries and to visit villages where there are no longer priests. “I have become an itinerant missionary, a priest who is pastor of a Church without a church.” Rather curiously, Fr. Baril is a defender of ecumenism. He even uses Anglican churches to gather the Catholics in the villages he visits. He does not hesitate to say that he likes to pray with them when the opportunity arises.

Having now entered the last stage of his life, a stage that he hopes will be prolonged, Fr. Baril acknowledges that as he advances in age, his faith is more humble. “My contacts with members of other Christian Churches have made me discover that God is for everyone. Faith is a gift that one has to develop. The relations which I had with other believers strengthened my faith.”

Why did Joseph Baril entitle his book My Aurorae Boreales ? “It was my secret! I can now reveal it. One does not see the Northern Lights often. But it is an imposing spectacle when they appear in the northern sky. One does not tire of looking at them and would like that they always be there. They became for me the image of my meeting with God. He does not appear often and when that occurs, often unexpectedly, we would like it to last. I understood that the God that I loved was the God of Jesus Christ. I can pray to Him easily. I can also forget Him and turn back to Him because He awaits me. One day, God seemed to be very close to me. And His presence has never ceased. I thank Him.” At these words, tears came to his eyes.

Jerome Martineau
Notre-Dame du Cap, November 2004, pp. 14-15