Will Willier’s memoir of Sister Theresa Devine

Sister Theresa Devine in civilian clothing
and her nun’s attire.

Editor’s note: Wilfred Willier was born, raised, attended school and was married in the town of High Prairie. He is a lawyer [26 years] who owns and operates his law firm in Edmonton and practices Aboriginal, administrative, criminal and family law as well as civil litigation.

Sister Theresa Devine Theresa Devine was born on July 14, 1916 at New Westminster, B.C. and passed away July 14, 2016 at Edmonton.

Her father was an Irish immigrant, Patrick Devine. Her mother, Mary Reid, was born in Texas, and grew up in Lethbridge. Theresa was the oldest of nine children including eight girls and one boy, Patrick, who was born when Theresa was 12 years old.

She was raised at the Blackfoot Reservation [now called Siksika Nation] by Jenny Duck Chief. She related to me that the saddest day of her life was when she was told that she was not a Blackfoot Indian and actually not even an Indian.

At the age of 19, she entered the Order of the Sisters of Providence and completed studies there and became a ‘Sister of Providence’ or a nun. In those days it was common for families to have at least one child become a nun or a priest.

Personally, I don’t remember the first time I met Sister Theresa Devine. My family attended weekly Mass on Sunday at St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church in High Prairie. I knew that both my mother and father knew her for a long time. My father was in the very first class that she taught at St. Bruno’s Mission in Joussard in 1942. My dad, Wilfred Willier, would have been 12 years old at the time.

Later, she taught my mother at St. Henri’s Residential School in Fort Vermillion, AB in 1946–47. So, when I transferred schools from Grade 4 Prairie River Elementary School, it was only fitting that she taught me as well.

I remember her well as a teacher, fully prepared, direct, honest and caring. She taught me when I was 10 years old in 1976. Because it was a new school to me, I was in awe of the teachers and the students – many of whom I had never met before.

I also became an altar boy along with Bruce Dube, Camille Lizee, Roy and Brian Ostermeier, Blain Eckel, and Lance Osberg. There were a bunch of us and we all desired to sit next to Father Lessard, who always gave excellent sermons and left you feeling better for being in God’s service. We were all proud to serve Mass and we looked forward to it.

The people of the church felt like family, though I wasn’t part of their nuclear family. I was a part of their church family, the Dubes, the Lizees, the Lemays, the Kasinecs, the Bonneaus, the Cowells, the Ostermeiers – there were many others but those are and remain the main ‘rocks’ of St. Paul’s in High Prairie. The Three Sisters were eternally present at church as well: Sister Long, Sister Poirier and Sister Theresa Devine.

In my 10-year-old quest to be an altar boy, I attended Mass on Saturday evenings, Sunday mornings and, if I was altar boy of the week, I attended mass at 8 a.m., and 4:30 p.m., every day of that week. Pretty soon I was altar boy of the week once a month as Father liked to have an altar boy serve Mass even if only 5-10 people attended.

It was during these times that Sister Theresa Devine would show up at Mass to play the organ or piano and to sing the hymns. At the time, I was ‘oblivious’ to the amount of time that I actually spent with her in school and/or in church. I liked it and it never bothered me at the time.

I credit those days for paying it forward or credit the ‘good karma’ or ‘God’s will’ for the good life I have had. I am blessed with three sons: Grant, David and Easton, and I still have both parents, Wilfred and Rosemarie, who are healthy and happy.

By Grade 8 or Grade 9, it was no longer ‘cool’ to be an altar boy, my friends aged out as did I. Going to Mass 100 times a year was no longer a priority. Couple that with a busy hockey schedule and puberty and my days as an altar boy came to an end. Sister Theresa was a large part of my life then, we never had a mean word and she always respected me.

I always kept in touch with my church family and I still do. As sure as there is a God, there is a church and the good people who believe.

Fast forward to 1999, I was made the In-House Legal Counsel for Siksika Nation, a position which remains my favourite as being a lawyer. I helped my own people and they welcomed me, despite being Cree and not Blackfoot, they loved and respected me. In turn, I learned about the beauty of their culture, creation stories, beliefs and history. Amazingly, this is where Sister Theresa grew up with Jenny Duck Chief. I played hockey with Armin Duck Chief, a notable First Nation country singer, and descendant of Jenny Duck Chief. The world is so small.

In 2014, I had a hearing at Providence Centre in Edmonton. This is where the Sisters of Providence live, that is the ones that remain. Sheepishly and hesitantly, I asked the lady at the reception desk if Sister Theresa Devine lived here. To my amazement, she said, “Yes, room 310, but she is at chapel until 10:30 a.m., but you can go and wait in her room.”

So, I went up to 310, and in 10 minutes, I heard a walker coming down the hall. There was no “Hi”, there was no “Remember me.” Sister Theresa said, “I knew it was you!”

So, I said, “How would you know it was me, Sister?”

“They said an Indian man in a suit is here to see you. Who else would come to see me?”

Right or wrong, I felt blessed again. I asked her, “Sister, do you know who I am?”

“Yes, Willie Willier, your dad is Wilfred, his mother was Christine, his father was Francis Sr. Your mother is Rosemarie, her mother was Elizabeth and her father was Chief Harry Chonkolay.”

She was right on all accounts. 98 years old and sharp as a tack.

We visited until lunch and I promised that I would not miss her 100th birthday, as it was two years away. I would not miss that day for the world.

I was there on Sister Theresa’s 100th birthday; it was jovial. I told her family how my dad was in her first class, how she taught my mom and played the organ in Fort Vermillion with my grandmother, Elizabeth. I talked about Gleichen, Blackfoot Reserve and all I knew about Jenny Duck Chief. I told the family how we sang the prayer of St. Francis at most of our Masses and that remained my favourite.

Tears of joy streamed down Sister Theresa’s face, it was an overpowering experience for me to witness her life, and really for her to witness three generations of my family.

I cannot say enough good things abut Sister Theresa’s family, they travelled from Ireland, England, California, Vancouver all to be with her on her 100th birthday.

Pope Francis sent a letter as well.

I still feel the luckiest to be in her presence on her birthday and final day.

It’s not fair to sum up a person’s life in 2,500 words, not when they lived 100 years, but at least in my way and in the traditional Blackfoot way, we honour her life four years after it ended.

God Bless Sister Theresa Devine!