The Pope has appointed the head of two small religious colleges in British Columbia as bishop of one of the world’s largest and most northerly dioceses.
As bishop of the Mackenzie-Fort Smith diocese, Monsignor Mark Hagemoen will oversee 33 parishes spread over 1.5 million square kilometres from Fond-du-Lac on Lake Athabasca in northern Saskatchewan to Sachs Harbour on Banks Island in the Beaufort Sea.
“It’s a little overwhelming to say the least,” Father Hagemoen said on Tuesday of his new duties based in Yellowknife, where he will preside over an ecclesiastical district bigger than Quebec.
Among the things he has to do before he leaves his duties as principal of Saint Mark’s Theological College and Corpus Christi College at the University of B.C. is to buy a heavy winter parka.
“Canon law says within three months of the public proclamation, you need to be installed in your new episcopal appointment … but people in the south get a bit traumatized moving up to Yellowknife in mid-January, so we might look at a possibility of [going] a little sooner,” said Father Hagemoen, who has served in lower mainland parishes for more than 20 years.
He said he is a bit daunted by the enormity of his diocese, but excited by the challenge of getting to know it and serving the 27,000 Catholics there, some of whom attend tiny wooden churches built by missionaries nearly 150 years ago.
His plan, despite the great distances he will face, is to visit every parish, including those in communities that can be reached only by air, or on winter ice roads.
“I think it has to be a part of the mandate. One can’t serve people in the diocese without getting to where their homes are and meeting them. It might be easier said than done in some parts. … I understand relying on some air flights might be part of the reality … but I think one has to start with a supposition that getting to all of those places some time in the first year would be a priority.”
Father Hagemoen, who was born and raised in Vancouver, said dealing with parishioners in small, far-flung communities will be a big change from his densely urban life in B.C.
But he said his work has taken him to Yukon before, and he loves the outdoors, which he expects to see a lot more of in his new post.
“Before I entered seminary, I worked in mineral exploration for a number of years mainly in British Columbia … around the Quesnel lakes. … I regularly do mountain hiking … so I do enjoy the outdoors,” he said. “We’re a little more protected [in terms of climate] here on the south coast than in the north, of course … but I do look forward to it.”
Catholic missionaries first went into the region in the early 1800s, travelling by dog sled and canoe while building small churches such as Our Lady of Good Hope, which was constructed between 1865 and 1885 overlooking the Mackenzie River at Fort Good Hope. Declared a national historic site in 1977, the church is still in use.
Father Hagemoen will be the ninth bishop appointed to the diocese since Vital Grandin was given the post in 1861.
He said he is aware of the area’s rich history and knows about the challenges people face in a modern world. But he admits he has much to learn.
“I don’t know a lot about the diocese. My first task would be an obvious one, doing a lot of listening, a lot of meeting people, getting to the communities and hearing people’s hopes, any challenges they are facing as individuals or communities in terms of faith [or] in terms of what’s going on now,” he said. “And obviously, we’re in this time now of the truth and reconciliation process in Canada, so that’s got to be on people’s minds and in their hearts, with a large First Nations community in the diocese.”
In a statement, Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller called Father Hagemoen “a great leader who has been a wonderful gift both to the archdiocese and to Saint Mark’s and Corpus Christi [colleges].”