On July 19, the Rev. Margaret Waterchief died at Peter Lougheed Hospital in Calgary from complications due to COVID-19. She was 88.
A Blackfoot elder and the first Indigenous woman to be ordained in the Anglican diocese of Calgary, Waterchief blazed a trail for many who followed her. As an Anglican priest, she spent years working with the homeless and poor in downtown Calgary. In her retirement from ministry, she continued to serve as an honorary assistant at St. John the Divine Church in Siksika Nation.
The Rev. Vivian Seegers, the first Indigenous woman ordained in the diocese of New Westminster, cites Waterchief as an inspiration. She remembers Waterchief’s kindness to her when she was a new student at the Native Ministries Consortium of the Vancouver School of Theology.
“Her silent presence and her gentle smile strengthened my commitment to native ministry,” Seegers says of Waterchief. “I saw in her the beauty of our people that was so wholesome and grounding.
“She didn’t say much. But her spirit filled us with the reassurance that our Great Creator was in charge and all will be okay … we will get through this and we are not alone. Her trust in us, her love and admiration for our native people always filled me with confidence and peace.”
National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop Mark MacDonald describes Waterchief as embodying the aspirations of the emerging self-determining Indigenous church within the Anglican Church of Canada.
“In Calgary, she was the church to many,” MacDonald says. “In her home community, she was a mother to all. To the larger church, I believe she gave people confidence that the Indigenous church had substance—intelligence, theological grounding, and fair-minded strong love towards all peoples and creatures.”
“For many of us, Margaret was the face of the new Indigenous church we are living into: great kindness and compassion for all people, a willingness to embrace a new future, and a loving connection to the past. She always gave me hope, always made me feel that we were doing something of substance, and always communicated that the Gospel of Jesus Christ matters to people today.”
“It will be hard to be without her,” he adds. “But her face will be on everything we do.”
A member of the Siksika Nation, Waterchief was a residential school survivor who overcame racism, poverty and addiction to become an ordained Anglican priest at the age of 62. Having been prevented in residential school from speaking her native Blackfoot, she would eventually combine Blackfoot traditions with Christian teachings in caring for her local community.
Waterchief’s faith was cemented early on when she experienced a vision of Christ during a childhood bout of tuberculosis. She retained her Christian beliefs through the years as she oversaw a growing family, eventually becoming the proud matriarch of 10 children, 29 grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.
After watching alcoholism claim the life of her late husband in 1976, Waterchief quit drinking in the early 1980s and became an alcohol counsellor and lay Anglican pastor. She was officially ordained in 1994.
For years thereafter, she served as a spiritual elder at the Calgary Urban Projects Society (CUPS), providing support and guidance to downtown residents struggling with poverty. Lorraine Melchior, former executive director of CUPS and a warden at Christ Church Anglican Calgary, hired Waterchief as spiritual director and the two became close friends.
Melchior remembers Waterchief’s abiding love of Jesus, her generous nature and the high regard with which she was held in the community: “When Margaret got up, everyone listened,” she recalls.
Waterchief in turn listened attentively to others. In speaking with homeless and impoverished residents, she always sought to learn about and acknowledge their talents.
“She wanted to listen to the people who were struggling in whatever way it was, and help them in that way, and give with whatever they’re really struggling with,” Melchior says.
“For instance, when talking to the people that she was meeting, she would discover that someone was a musician and could really play the guitar very well … It was the listening to the people who were downtown and really trying to hear what they needed and work on that.”
Indigenous Ministries Coordinator Ginny Doctor, who first met Waterchief at the Native Ministries Summer School in 1991 at the Vancouver School of Theology, says that the elder priest “changed my life forever.” At the time, Doctor was thinking about becoming a priest. Waterchief described the vocation as “a calling from God, you have to pray and listen.”
“Two years later,” Doctor says, “I began missionary service in Alaska, always praying and listening.”
Waterchief’s concern for those she encountered and willingness to lend an ear led to her become known locally as an “angel of mercy”, as the YW Calgary described her after recognizing Waterchief for its program She Who Dares. Melchior—who was also selected for the program—had nominated Waterchief for She Who Dares, which sought to honour 150 women who had impacted Calgary over the last 150+ years since Confederation.
Archbishop Greg Kerr-Wilson says that Waterchief “was much beloved in the diocese of Calgary, and respected and treasured as a priest and as a faithful Christian woman whose witness was an inspiration. Her life was an inspiration to many of us.”