Each year on December 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) invites the faithful to pray with aboriginal peoples. For this occasion, the Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council of the CCCB prepares an annual message. This year’s focus is Rose Prince, a remarkable woman from a small First Nations community near Fort St. James, in the Diocese of Prince George.
Rose Prince was born in 1915 at Nak’azdli, a First Nations community near Fort St. James. Her parents were devout Catholics and she inherited their deep faith and love for God. Descended from the great Carrier Chief Kwah, Rose was a good student and a gifted artist.
Her life was not easy; born with curvature of the spine that resulted in a hump on her back, she lived with pain that made her movements awkward. Although she was self conscious about her deformity, she did not complain.
Rose’s life was marked by cheerfulness and gratitude. She helped other students with their school work and they sought her out for guidance. She was known to hum or sing as she worked and she gave away her paintings and intricate crochet and beadwork as gifts to the Sisters and other students on special occasions.
Rose was devout in the practice of her faith and could often be found in prayer in the chapel. As it came time for her to leave the school she asked if she could stay on as a staff member. This desire was granted and she was able to continue her simple life of prayer and work.
Rose lived a hidden life and died of tuberculosis in 1949 at the age of 34. She could easily have been forgotten. But in 1951 when it was decided that a few graves west of the school would be moved to a larger cemetery nearby, Rose Prince’s grave reportedly broke open during the transfer and the workers said they were amazed to find her body and clothing perfectly preserved.
Devotion to Rose Prince has developed over the years. Many find comfort and some have found healing through her intercession. A pilgrimage to her gravesite began in 1990 and has grown into an annual event that attracts hundreds of people from throughout Western Canada.
Rose Prince continues to stand out in a special and relevant way in today’s society in part because she was a rather ordinary person who lived out both her humanity and her faith in a rather extraordinary way. Many people respond only to special occasions and celebrations, but Rose found meaning in the daily and regular celebrations of life, through everyday acts of compassion and kindness.
Lejac is situated along the highway, a two hour drive west of Prince George, between Vanderhoof and Fraser Lake. Every summer on the second weekend of July a three day pilgrimage is held on the grounds where the Lejac Indian Residential School once stood.
In 1990, responding to the desire of former Lejac Residential School students for a reunion, Father Jules Goulet, OMI, former pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Fraser Lake, along with a local elder and childhood friend of Rose Prince, initiated the first pilgrimage. After this very humble beginning when 20 people gathered, awareness of the pilgrimage and the life of Rose Prince grew. It gradually gained momentum with greater collaboration between the First Nations people and others who have built on a common vision and worship. People still come from near and far to celebrate, pray and honor the memory of Rose Prince.
The next pilgrimage is scheduled for July 6-8, 2012.