Franciscan Missionaries of Hope reflect on their time serving the Canadian north

For everything there is a season, the Book of Ecclesiastes says, a time to plant and a time to uproot.

While the spring is typically a time for planting, for two Franciscan Missionaries of Hope in our archdiocese it will be a time to uproot, as they prepare to leave after several years serving our northern parishes and missions.

It’s an experience that has brought both priests great joys, great challenges and great insights into their call of service to Christ and His Church.

Fr. Henry Kiggundu, FMH has served the communities of High Level, Meander River and Paddle Prairie for the past seven years. Before his move to Canada, Fr. Henry was in the United States as a vicar for the Franciscan Missionaries in the US, and before this he spent time in Kenya to complete his master’s degree in Scripture studies.

He first came to Canada in 2017 as a student – taking part in a hospital chaplaincy program through the Misericordia Hospital in Edmonton. While there, he got in touch with Archbishop Pettipas who was in need of a pastor up north. So Fr. Henry paused from his work in Edmonton and set out to the Peace Country.

Being stationed in the most northernly reaches of the archdiocese, Fr. Henry got to uniquely experience the bitter cold Canadian winters, as well as the long summer days and long winter nights that result from living so close to the Arctic Circle.

“It was a challenge; I had never experienced cold weather,” Fr. Henry said. “Even when I was in the US, where I stayed it was never that cold.”

Fr. Henry Kiggundu with some of the youth of Our Lady of Good Counsel parish in High Level.

However, one of the biggest challenges of Fr. Henry’s tenure in High Level was not the bitter cold, but something on the other side of the extreme weather spectrum – when a wildfire in the summer of 2019 led to the evacuation of the entire town of High Level. Fr. Henry himself saw the wildfire’s great clouds of black smoke and billowing flames come within eye sight of High Level’s Our Lady of Good Counsel Church.

The evacuation lasted from mid-May to July of 2019. Fr. Henry evacuated to Fort Vermillion, and did what he could to continue ministering to his people as they were evacuated to areas across the province.

“At first when I was told about the possibility of wildfires, I thought it was a joke. When I finally had to evacuate, I saw how serious it was,” he recalled. “It’s not easy to decide at a moment’s notice what valuables you will take with you, especially when you don’t know if you will be coming back.

“I could see the smoke, flames, the planes and firefighters trying to stop it. Thankfully that fire was controlled, but it was a wake-up call – a reminder of how unprepared we sometimes are.”

For the other Franciscan Missionary serving the north, Fr. Charles Mungai, his assignment in our archdiocese was the priest’s first mission abroad. And it was one that immediately came with some intense challenges.

Fr. Charles Mungai, FMH

Fr. Charles arrived in late December 2019 on what was the coldest day of that year – with temperatures reaching a windchill below -50. He finally arrived in Fort Vermillion on Jan. 27th, 2020 to begin his pastoral work there and in the Indigenous mission communities of Eleske and Tallcree.

However, just as he was beginning to settle in, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived with its complementary government restrictions and lockdowns – creating a situation that was far from ideal for a newly arrived priest trying to settle into a community.

“It was a challenge at first,” said Fr. Charles. “Especially as a religious priest who is used to living in community, it was particularly isolating. But that was a good experience for me also, it helped me learn to live alone.

“It did not stop my mission. I continued my ministry, whether in hospital, in homes or in the church. We just had to abide by the new rules and restrictions.”


But these challenges are only a small part of the priests’ time in our archdiocese. One of the fondest memories for both Fr. Charles and Fr. Henry has been getting to serve the Indigenous peoples of the north and encounter their unique culture, unique way of life and unique expression of the Faith.

Fr. Henry served the Metis of Paddle Prairie and the Dene of Meander River, and also celebrated the occasional wedding and funeral for the Cree communities of Little Red River.

“This was something entirely new in my ministry: to meet the First Nations people, to encounter their way of doing things, of celebrating funerals, and their traditions and culture,” said Fr. Henry. “Our natives take a long time to have confidence in a pastor. At first, they would just look at you at a distance, but now many of them have become close to me. They call me, tell me of their excitements and so many other things, and that gives me great joy.”

Fr. Charles, Fr. Emmanuel Ekanem and parishioners at the Eleske pilgrimage.

The annual pilgrimage celebrated by the Beaver First Nation peoples of Eleske is one of Fr. Charles’ most cherished memories. He recalls fondly his experiences of the blessing of the fire, the blessing of the cemetery grounds, the procession and Mass, and the pilgrimage’s tea dance – including one year when the parishioners got both Archbishop Pettipas and Father Charles to get up and take part in the dance.

Most recently, Fr. Charles spent some time this January with the First Nations people of Tallcree South, where he got to baptize 14 infants.

“Celebrating the sacraments and sharing with the people – it’s what keeps me going,” said Fr. Charles. “When I get to do these things I am inspired by the presence of people, no matter the number. In places like Eleske the number can fluctuate, but the few who are there – they keep the faith. They are good.

“There are good people in Tallcree as well. Especially with Baptism, they are very generous to God. They really support the call to bring people closer to God through baptism.”

Celebration of the sacraments, of course, holds a special place for each priest. There were many joys that came with Fr. Henry’s priesthood here, and many memories he will cherish. These include the obvious joys of his vocation – celebrating baptisms, marriages, funerals. But what stands out for him above all else is simply seeing the positive impact of faith in the lives of those he served.

Fr. Henry Kiggundu and Fr. Gerald Mendoza visit the chancery office in Grande Prairie shortly before Fr. Henry’s departure from our archdiocese.

Fr. Charles is now preparing to continue his missionary work with the Franciscan Missionaries in the southern United States. Fr. Henry is being sent to Kenya, where he will be a local superior for the Franciscan Missionaries of Hope, based out of their central mother house. He is also preparing to continue his studies, with efforts towards a PhD in Scripture scholarship.

At first, when asked what he will miss most from his time here in Canada, Fr. Henry said the cold weather, and then let out a laugh. But in seriousness, what he will miss most of all is the people.

“I will miss the people. Our church here is not a big church; it’s a small church with a big heart, and that is something that I will miss,” he said. “Because a small church with a big heart is a church that looks on you as a family member, and you come to understand people in a special way. I will miss that so much.

“My departing message to the people I’ve served here is to keep the fire burning, to remain committed in their love for the faith and for the Church, and to remain supportive of their church and their diocese – that is important too.”

This is only an excerpt. Read the full story in the March 2024 edition of Northern Light