For the third year, a parishioner of St. Martin of Tours Parish in Buffalo continues to serve as a missionary in the Yukon Territory of Canada.
For the third year, James McNichol, 74, who previously studied to be a priest in the Diocese of Buffalo, will serve as a missionary in the Yukon Territory of Canada beginning Sept. 8, after making a very unusual journey toward serving in the Catholic Church.
The arrangements came about after McNichol, a former executive and television host, discovered that he could not be ordained due to age restrictions. Instead, he contacted Bishop Gary Gordon of the Diocese of Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territory, and asked him about serving. Although Bishop Gordon also initially told McNichol "no" due to his age, McNichol said, "You call two priests who know me very well, and after you talk with them, if you feel the same way, you won't hear from me again."
"Jim McNichol just wrote a paper on how to recruit priests. He'll bring priests to the north," McNichol recalled one of the priests saying, noting the Canadian diocese's biggest needs were more priests and churches. "This guy is a former executive. He can raise money; he showed us that he could."
Bishop Gordon then contacted Father James Judge, pastor of St. Martin of Tours Parish, to find out more information about McNichol. The bishop agreed to invite McNichol north. McNichol recalled that Bishop Gordon said, "I want you to be the Catholic presence north of British Columbia, which is really pristine wilderness." The missionary began serving three churches and three Catholic missions in the Yukon, as well as First Nations Aboriginal populations, feeding them and providing other care.
"The bishop, a month ago, called me up and said, 'I need you to go further north and take the Blessed Sacrament 1,000 kilometers north. I'm going to send you up to the Arctic Circle," McNichol said. "I started my third year July 1. I had a two-year contract with (Bishop Gordon), and he asked me to stay another year," McNichol said. "The reason it's just one more year is because, according to canon law, you can't be a pastor past 75 years of age. You have to retire." This year, McNichol will be serving at St. Mary's Catholic Mission in Dawson City, which is further north in the Yukon Territory.
McNichol first decided he wanted to become a priest about 12 years ago after meeting Lilian Bernas, a Canadian woman who began experiencing stigmata in 1992. "After I experienced and met her, and all that she was about, I was convinced that I no longer wanted to have my television show and that lifestyle. I walked away from everything. I had beautiful offices, and I couldn't sit at a desk any longer, doing that kind of work, after what I experienced with her, with the bleeding," McNichol said.
He enrolled in the seminary, but completed only about half of his work there before his mother fell ill, and he left his schooling to help his siblings care for her. By the time he came back, he had lost his sponsorship and this, coupled with his older age, meant he could not be ordained.
While he serves there, McNichol typically wears a Benedictine cross and black clerics, not a robe and collar, which would identify him as a priest. He is known among parishioners as "Brother Jim," and to those who are new, he makes it clear that he is not a priest. He said, "I wear black because it's like a police officer's uniform. People will come to you. No matter where I go, I wind up counseling."
The Aboriginal people who live there work in mines in the mountains, and children typically grow up to drive large trucks. Within a 10-year period, they can make six figures working in the mines, searching for gold, copper and other minerals. While living there, people listen for barking dogs, which can indicate the presence of animals that can pose dangers such as grizzly bears, wolves or even moose.
"Oftentimes, moose will meander down the middle of the highway, and you've got to wait until they go off into the bush. If you try to pass them, you'll spook them and they just might charge your car. If they charge your car, you've got a damaged automobile," McNichol commented.
Wildlife typically found in the Yukon includes grizzly, brown and black bears, wolves, porcupines and wild sheep, which travel into the steep, jagged rocks of the mountains to get away from predators. At its coldest, the temperature in Dawson City often descends to -50 degrees Fahrenheit.
"I have clothing that I wear, that you can't buy in Buffalo. It takes me 10 minutes to get dressed. I have a layer of armor wear, followed by khakis or jeans. Then, I put on long, down-filled pants with suspenders, a wool jacket, wool shirt, and over that I wear the second-warmest parka you can buy," McNichol said. "It's a Canadian goose expedition parka. They run around $1,000. You can't wear gloves; you've got to wear mittens that are down-filled. They come up to my elbow. My boots are rated at -75 degrees. Then, I wear a clava around my face, head and neck, where just the face part is open."
McNichol wears goggles to protect his eyes, and uses a device that warms the incoming cold air before it can hit his lungs. "If you throw a glass of water into the air at that temperature, it will be frozen before it hits the ground," he added. "One of the most magnificent things you can see there, beside the pristine wilderness and wonderful wild animals, is the Northern Lights. You can lay back in the snow and watch patterns, stripes of pink and yellow and orange, and green and blue, shooting through the sky. It's just magnificent. The further north you go, the clearer it becomes, the sharper the colors."
In the years since he has begun serving in Canada, McNichol has gotten involved in exorcism, and said he has had people attempt to take and desecrate the Host in the Church. He said there are practitioners who engage in rituals to summon demons, and that seminarians and priests should be trained to handle people who need to be exorcised. "If you don't have a priest, or minister, or rabbi who knows how to deal with deliverance issues, they're not going to be able to help these people," he added.
"If someone comes to a priest, saying, 'I'm being tormented with demons. Crazy things are happening,' that might be a sign, or if they're terribly agitated and fidgety and they don't know why, or they have stomach problems and they can't figure out what's wrong," McNichol said. "Chances are, there's a demon in there that's causing the problem. Headaches, backaches, shoulder aches, and the percentage of people that are affected by this in the population are huge. We just don't recognize it."
The interest in exorcism grew out of McNichol's original ministry in the Yukon, which was to distribute communion, counsel and visit the sick. While there, he also became a chaplain of a fire department and a trained firefighter. "If someone needed their house painted, I was there to help. If they needed meals to be cooked, I had guys knocking on my door, drunk, at 3 in the morning, crying, praying. They wanted help. As I told the bishop, they're not going to ring the doorbell at normal hours," he said.