HUMBOLDT, Canada — While tragedy ends “life the way you know it,” it also “tells you something new is waiting to be manifested.” That has been the main thing Father Joseph Salihu has been telling his parishioners at St. Augustine’s Parish in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, in the aftermath of a horrific bus crash that killed 16 members of the local hockey team.
On April 7 the Humboldt Broncos, a Saskatchewan Junior League Hockey team, were en route to Nipawin, a town about 124 miles northeast of Humboldt, to play in game five of a playoff series. The team was less than half an hour away from Nipawin, near the town of Tisdale, when their bus collided with a semi-truck. The front end of the bus was obliterated, killing 14 people instantly.
A total of 16 people died as a result of the crash, and 13 were injured. Ten players were killed along with the head coach, assistant coach, athletic therapist, a reporter with a local radio station, the statistics compiler and the driver of the bus. The magnitude of the tragedy has triggered a national outpouring of grief and support for the survivors and the families of the victims across Canada, where hockey is the national sport and a foundational element of Canadian identity.
Catholic organizations in the Diocese of Saskatoon, of which Humboldt is part, and the Archdiocese of Regina showed their support for families and friends of the Broncos in various ways. In a letter dated April 13 and posted to social media, the director of Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools, Greg Chatlain, said the school district’s Tragic Events Response Team were providing “boots-on-the-ground” support.
At the time of the fatal crash, many of the town’s Christian pastors and ministers were at St. Augustine’s Catholic Church in Humboldt for a concert organized by the Humboldt Ministerial Association.
The association is made up of the pastors of the local Christian churches who cooperate on issues where there is common understanding among the different churches. The group organizes events in which all Christians can participate and runs a nonprofit organization that does local charity work.
As news of the crash reached Humboldt, families and friends of the hockey players went to the town’s hockey arena to wait for more updates. When the pastors gathered at St. Augustine’s were told of the crash and the family members gathering at the arena, they didn’t hesitate: Father Salihu and the other Christian pastors left the concert and made their way to the arena.
There, Father Salihu said, he and the members of the Ministerial Association made themselves available to people who had gathered. He said, “We stayed till past midnight,” listening to people who needed to talk, comforting families who received news that their sons or friends had died, and praying with those who wanted to pray.
“That’s how the idea of the vigil came up,” the priest explained. The members of the association decided to organize a prayer vigil to give family, friends and townspeople a way to grieve together.
Tight-Knit, Religious Community
With a population of nearly 6,000 people, Humboldt, “is very tight knit; [there is] a village sense here,” said Father Salihu. Because of the size of the town and closeness of the population, the townspeople knew the hockey players personally: “[The hockey team] are the children of Humboldt, not just names, not just statistics,” he said.
Father Salihu said the town is quite religious and attendance at Mass and at other Sunday services is fairly high. After the bus crash, however, he said more people were seeking spiritual direction and a space to pray.
The April 8 prayer vigil was held at the Elgar Petersen arena in Humboldt. Although Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other government officials were in attendance, only clergy spoke at the service. Ukrainian Catholic Bishop Bryan Bayda proclaimed Psalm 23 during the service, and Bishop Mark Hagemoen of the Diocese of Saskatoon gave the final blessing at that service. “Lord God, you are the light that illumines the darkness,” he prayed. “Continue to lead us into your light.”
After the vigil, members of the Ministerial Association stayed at the arena to be available to anyone who needed to talk or needed spiritual care.
At the two Masses he celebrated on the morning of April 8, Father Salihu said he reminded parishioners of the need to “be prayerful, to listen deeply to what God is saying” in the midst of tragedy, and he challenged them to offer consolation to each other. Realizing that many of the young people in his parish were classmates of the hockey players, he ended each Mass inviting the youth to come forward so he could give them a special blessing.
“Tragedy tells you life the way you know it is over. It tells you something new is waiting to be manifested, and that is a journey,” Father Salihu told the Register. He said asking why something happened and focusing on “why” can lead to paralysis. “Without making light of tragedy, that life is over, sad as it is. Sometimes what manifests [after a tragedy] is more beautiful. We are already seeing that in Humboldt,” he said.
Quoting a line from a homily he was preparing for the funeral of one of the young men on the bus, he said the mother of the young man — whom he did not identify — told him, “I want to be part of something bigger than myself. There is so much hurt in this province. ... It doesn’t get the attention it needs. I don’t know what it will look like, but I want to start a movement.”
Father Salihu had already celebrated the funeral of one crash victim and was scheduled to celebrate the funeral of Brody Hinz, the Bronco’s 18-year-old statistics compiler, April 14. He said he expected to celebrate more funerals but did not yet know when those would take place, as of press time.
The funeral of team member Adam Herold was celebrated April 13, one day after what would have been his 17th birthday, at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Montmartre, Saskatchewan, where Herold had been an altar server. Herold was the crash’s youngest victim.
The Gospel recounted the two disciples walking to Emmaus without realizing that the person walking with them was Jesus. The homilist, Father Dennis Remot, fought to hold back tears while he described Herold as a “through and through Catholic kid who loved his faith, loved the Eucharist and loved Jesus,” adding that he brought Jesus close to everyone he met through his way of connecting with people.
“It is a manifestation of God’s providential love that he gave to us Adam’s companionship. Through his friendship, Christ drew near to us,” said Father Remot. He encouraged the parish’s altar servers to look to Herold as a model of what it means to live a faithful Catholic life as a young person.
“Our hearts today are burning within us through Adam’s friendship and presence,” the priest said. “But it is not enough for our hearts to burn within us. They must burst open and share the Good News. Adam did this by his friendship and witness.”
Alicia Ambrosio writes from Vancouver, Canada.