The Rev. Ann Westgate, deacon of St. John the Evangelist Mistissini in the diocese of Moosonee, spent Nov. 15 to Dec. 1 travelling in the Cree Nation of Waskaganish, where she baptized 47 children, infants and teens.
Westgate was assisted and accompanied by Rita MacLeod, she shared in an email. They travelled to several families’ homes and camps in the bush in order to conduct the baptisms, using a home liturgy prepared by Archbishop Fred Hiltz, assisting bishop of Moosonee, and Archbishop Anne Germond for use during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Germond, who, as metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Ontario, also serves as bishop of Moosonee, says they developed the liturgy after learning from the chief of the James Bay community of Chisasibi that more than 80 babies and infants were waiting to be baptized in that community alone after months of lockdown. “No baptisms had taken place since March.… [Hiltz] and I discovered that other communities in the James Bay deanery were experiencing the same thing and there were numbers of new babies born. He and I spoke at length about how we could offer the sacrament of baptism in a safe way ‘for this time’ of COVID-19 pandemic.”
Baptism at home “is an exception to the rule and our Anglican custom of baptism with the gathered community in the context of Sunday worship,” Germond says. The liturgy is meant to be used at home with a small group of people present, to prevent large gatherings.
“We included very strict procedures and protocols for everyone to follow and gave permission for it to be used with the understanding that there will be a public welcome in the church proper when the community is able to gather again,” says Germond. They suggested using family members in the readings and the Celebration of Baptism, and she adds that in some communities on the James Bay coast, bear grease was used instead of oil of chrism.
Germond says she and Hiltz consulted regularly on the details of the liturgy, though Hiltz is its primary author.
Westgate says that she was honoured to perform the baptisms. “When I told [parents] to train their children in the ways of the Lord and to bring them to church I could not help but feel that the odds were stacked up against them” with churches closed and lockdown measures in place, Westgate wrote. However, she says she has seen records of and heard from elders about baptisms done at home and in the bush before the church were built in her community. “This was also the practice of the early Church to worship in the homes.”
Westgate wrote that she baptized six babies all from the same family at the family’s camp, with grandmothers and great-grandmothers present to see the baptism. She also baptized eight young adults between 13 and 19, from two other families.
In addition to the baptisms in Waskaganish, 21 youth have been baptized at home in Chisasabi First Nation. Westgate’s husband, the Rev. George Westgate, has also celebrated two home baptisms in Mistissini.
Germond noted that clergy in the diocese are in close contact with band councils and follow their guidelines on whether or not to allow baptisms at home. Churches resumed baptisms on site when they were reopened in September, but at press time in January the area was in lockdown, and baptisms were being done at home again.