Q&A with Rev. Arockiam Savarimuthu, Pastor at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Spirit River

In June, at the Rycroft Community Hall, a celebration was held to mark the 40th anniversary of Rev. Arockiam Savarimuthu’s priesthood ministry. Father Arockiam serves the Roman Catholic parishes of Silver Valley, Wanham, Spirit River and Rycroft. The large crowd of young and not-so-young friends and parishioners shared a wonderful meal, stories and made speeches honoring Father Arockiam.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. When did you come to Canada and from where?
I came to Canada, directly to Spirit River, from South India in 2014. A lot of the Christians in India are from the south. I was born in Tamil Nadu and a priest in a neighbouring province. I also came for a one-month visit in Rycroft in 2012 upon the invitation of my priest friend. I chose to come in December for two reasons: I wanted to see snow, which I had never seen before, and to experience how Christmas is celebrated in the Western world.

Are you here for the long haul?
This will be my fifth year. Our priesthood assignment is always a five-year term. I have applied for an extension of another five-year term, but it is up to the bishop. I’m here to serve. Where I am called to go I will go. And it’s really great here. I’m getting to know more and more people. I will know by May or June if my request for an extension is accepted. The Archbishop makes decisions on that.

Have you seen much of the places outside of Spirit River since you came?
No. I have been only to Edmonton for an annual Clergy Retreat for five days.

When did you become a priest?
I became a priest in 1979 – so it has been 40 years now. I am 65 years old.

Was it hard to get to know people when you first started?
I come from a culture where priests are very much a part of the community. Most people invite priests into their homes and seek priestly blessing or prayer for their houses or children. When I came, I immediately see the stark contrast, and I understand it’s not a practice among Roman Catholics here. I did not see it as a problem, but it was a surprise for me initially. But things have since improved.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?
I was prepared for anything. I came with an open mind. So, I do not consider anything as a challenge or something beyond resolution. I am learning, and it will take time to learn new things. I’m still learning.

Is there still a goal you want to accomplish here?
Yes. I keep encouraging people to be involved in the community. I want to get as many people in my congregation involved in programs and services in the community. Few are getting actively involved, and these few need a helping hand. Jesus said, “People will know that you are my disciples by how you love each other.” Love is the key. You may have a lot of money, but without love money doesn’t go very far in community-building. Love is the basis for community-building. And on the topic of community-building, I’m happy to note that the congregation has come together to rebuild our church basement, which has been in a state of disrepair for years. We could not go downstairs since I’ve been here and even before that – so, it’s been quite a long time. The congregation could not have coffee and fellowship together at the basement, but we successfully raised funds for its repair. For the first time last week, in over four years, we could have coffee together in the basement. We had 80 people down there. I feel very proud. The people got it done. We are making progress. The mass is a beautiful illustration of the spirit of oneness. We come to mass not as a spectator but a participant. Everyone is supposed to be a participant. Then we have celebration time together.

Churches are atrophying in most Western countries. Why do you think that is?
I suppose there are not too many people who like the idea of living the life of sacrifice. People are busy trying to get ahead in life.

How many people attend your church every Sunday?
About 100 people come to Spirit River and about 50 in Rycroft. Not too many young people attend church, although they do come on important Church holidays. I look after Spirit River, Rycroft, Wanham, and Silver Valley. I go to Wanham once a week on Saturdays at 4pm. Then I go to Silver Valley twice a month – first and second Sunday – at the Fourth Creek Hall at 3pm. Mass is offered every day in Spirit River.

Do you have any events coming up?
Yes. We have a very big event. There is an Archbishop’s Dinner scheduled on Nov. 9, 2018 at the Rycroft Community Hall. People from five centers – Grande Prairie, Sexsmith, Beaverlodge, Spirit River, and Rycroft – come together for the dinner. The event is planned for 200 people and is open to anyone. The dinner occurs every five years in a different location. Before Rycroft, the dinner was last held five years ago in Grande Prairie.