It was a big moment for a small community of refugees from the African country of Eritrea.
Paulos Teckle, born in Asmara but now a member of St. Francis de Sales Parish in Burnaby, was ordained a permanent deacon and vowed a life of service to the Catholic Church May 19.
“This is a new chapter for our Church in Canada and the United States,” said Father Abba Negusse, cousin to Teckle, who travelled from Seattle to witness the solemn occasion.
He said Teckle is North America’s first permanent deacon from the Ge’ez rite, an ancient Catholic rite common in Eritrea and Ethiopia.
“This is really a blessing and a good example for others, also, that they might think about the diaconate or another vocation to serve the Church and to serve our people.”
Eritrean refugees have been fleeing human rights abuses and seeking better lives overseas for at least as long as Syrians have, though with hardly the same amount of press coverage, said archdiocesan refugee program coordinator Diane Chua.
“These people drowned in the Mediterranean way before the Syrians,” she said. “They are wonderful people to settle because they come in with so much gratitude.”
The Eritrean population in the Lower Mainland is small, but growing. In past years, the federal government capped applications to relocate here at only six per year and took as long as six years to process, resulting in only three Vancouver arrivals from 2006-2010.
Numbers have picked up since then, with 26 arriving between 2013-2015 and as many as 28 in 2016 alone. Last year saw the local Eritrean population, escaping unjust government, forced slave labour, or kidnappings, jump up another 16 members.
Catholics from Eritrea are members of the Ge’ez rite, but those who have resettled here participate in Latin-rite Masses at St. Francis de Sales Parish in Burnaby. Our Lady of Mercy Parish has also opened its doors to a weekly prayer group, where about 30 Eritreans gather every Sunday.
Father Negusse said it’s perfect timing to ordain a permanent deacon in their midst.
“Our community is growing, so he will prepare for marriages, prepare for baptisms, he will serve the people in many ways. I think this will be a great, great service,” he said.
“There are a lot of people from my country in Canada and America. They need help and spiritual support, so it is really a blessing and a good start. I hope many will follow him.”
As Teckle approached the altar to be ordained, women clad in white veils and dresses with bright embroidery sang in their own languages, clapping, ululating, and playing drums or tambourines.
“All along the way our candidate has been lifted up by the support and prayers of so many who have sustained him,” said Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, of the vibrant community.
“You have helped form him. You have prayed for him. Now Paulos will be returned to you as a deacon, as a man whom the Lord is placing at your service, so that you may draw closer to God himself.”
The festive atmosphere continued at a reception at Rosary Hall, where the congregation danced and sang, then sat down to a meal of traditional Eritrean breads and sauces.
There, the newly ordained Deacon Teckle gave a short, much-anticipated speech. He thanked his family, especially his wife Yordanos Amanzghi, and the community for their support.
“We are going to sing, we are going to praise the Lord, for all of the wonderful things he has done, not only in our community but in the Archdiocese of Vancouver,” said Deacon Teckle.
“We are going to cherish and praise God for these special moments. This is the day the Lord has made, continue the verse: let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Deacon Teckle has a BA in economics and finance from the University of Asmara in Eritrea, a master’s in agricultural economics from Germany, and a PhD in health services research from the U.K. He is currently a Senior Health Economist with the B.C. Cancer Agency and lectures on population and public health at UBC.
His assignment as a permanent deacon has not yet been announced.