BEAUSEJOUR -- After two decades of training aboriginal church leaders along the Brokenhead River, a United Church theological centre is about to be reborn.
On Oct. 1, the Dr. Jessie Saulteaux Resource Centre, located on Highway 44 just east of Beausejour, officially merges with the Francis Sandy Theological Centre of Paris, Ont., to become the Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre.
"There was a lot of feedback that it was important to have those names continued, connecting with the history of the two schools," explains Norah McMurtry, former principal of Dr. Jessie Saulteaux Centre, who is staying on until her replacement is hired.
"The school is now a national school and the two were regional schools so the school will have to build a national identity."
The merger comes in the wake of the decision by the United Church to cut funding for its theological schools by 10 per cent as of June 30. For 2011, the new spiritual centre will receive $430,000, which includes a $200,000 grant to underwrite the transition to one institution.
The new spiritual centre will be housed at the Beausejour campus, home since 1990 to the Dr. Jessie Saulteaux Centre. Originally intended to be located in a former public school in a Winnipeg suburb, in 1988 the centre was forced to find another site after it faced opposition from residents who feared the aboriginal training centre would disrupt their neighbourhood.
Outwardly, the new school will look similar to its predecessor at the heavily wooded former children's camp along the Brokenhead River. Students will take classes and share meals in the main lodge and stay overnight for two weeks at a time in the four winterized bunkhouses.
Some furniture, artwork and books from the Francis Sandy Theological Centre will be incorporated into the Beausejour campus, says McMurtry.
With each school now having only a handful of students, the United Church leadership asked them to find a way to work together, explains Nora Sanders, general secretary of the United Church of Canada.
"The challenge was both schools were small enough that it was hard to imagine both or either school going ahead if something wasn't done," she says from Toronto.
"It's time to try to build something new and hope it's a stronger entity than before."
One of those new things could be how the centre blends teaching Christian theology with traditional aboriginal spirituality, says Rev. Bernice Saulteaux, the former keeper of the circle for the centre named after her late mother.
"Our ancestors had their own way of praying and it involved creation. When the missionaries came into our community and said it was wrong, our people had to be saved and live according to the Bible," explains Saulteaux, who commutes to Beausejour from her home community of Carry the Kettle, just east of Regina.
"Now our people are going back to that way of our spirituality and ceremonies, the meaning of healing, the mind, body, spirit and all of it, the whole circle."
Students at the new spiritual centre will continue the five-year study plan leading to ordination laid out by the former schools, coming to the Beausejour campus for two-week periods four times a year. The program includes reading, journal writing and reflecting with other students, as well as practical experience in their home communities, says Saulteaux.
"When you come out of your community to study, it's like a retreat, but you're working and then you go back to your community and you're rejuvenated," she says of the advantage of the intensive two-week courses at the centre.
"You need that time to be with other students and to see what's happening in their lives and (get) the support."
That support of other students facing similar issues is what attracted Rev. Maggie McLeod to study at the Francis Sandy Theological Centre, where she graduated in 2001.
Now executive minister of the aboriginal ministries circle for the United Church of Canada, she says her years of learning alongside other aboriginal church leaders helped her value her Cree heritage and expand her Christian understanding.
"It certainly becomes part of you," McLeod says of her experience at Francis Sandy.
"It became a deep place where I found my voice as an aboriginal Christian woman."
As McMurtry makes plans for the first days of the Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre, dealing with practicalities such as replacing signs and making space in the library for more books, she hopes the new centre will become a deep place for future students and the entire United Church of Canada.
"My hope is that it will also be a place the national church will use as a gathering place on aboriginal issues," she says.