Father Emil Sasges, a Catholic priest who served in Blue River area and elsewhere in the B.C. Interior for many years passed from this life on Aug. 5. A resident of Cache Creek, Sasges was visiting in Valemont, sought medical aid, was airlifted to Kelowna, where he died.
Sasges was well-liked and respected by nearly everyone he met. To mark his passing we re-publish two Valley Voice articles about him that appeared in the Clearwater Times in March and April of 2013.
VALLEY VOICES (Part One): Father Sasges gives 56 years of service to his faith
The first Saturday in April, 2013, will mark Father Emil Sasges’ 56th anniversary as a Roman Catholic priest.
Born Feb. 6, 1931, in Lake Lenore, Saskatchewan, Sasges felt called to the priesthood from a young age.
He was ordained in Vernon, B.C., on April 6, 1957, Father Sasges has served in Ashcroft, Lytton, Logan Lake, and 100 Mile House, in Kamloops twice, and three times in the North Thompson Valley: 1965 – 76, 1983 – 88, and 2006 – 2012.
Although he retired in November, 2012, at age 82, he is ready to go wherever there is need of a priest.
“As long as I have strength,” he states.
Cache Creek, 100 Mile House, the missions in the Cariboo-Chilcotin and Williams Lake have recently benefited from his efforts with the sacraments and daily mass.
For 56 years he has lived his commitment to daily personal prayer, daily mass (usually multiple times on Sunday), being always available for baptisms, weddings and funerals, hearing confessions, attending the sick, aged and grieving, visiting in prison and welcoming newcomers.
“Serving in small towns has always been a big part of this effort,” Father Sasges explains.”My first 10 1/2 years serving Valemount as priest will always be special to me,” he said. “I came in July, 1965, with all the eagerness of one beginning a first assignment.”
Beginning with a scattered people who had only experienced infrequent pastoral visits (Father Quigley since 1949), and residents who were themselves transient, there was much to prevent a strong sense of belonging and community.
“I was on the move constantly, the distance and irregular modes of transportation, the seasons and weather causing obstacles and challenges. Rarely did I drive the three hours on the gravel roads between Valemount and Blue River,” he said.
The highway between Avola and Clearwater was under construction. The railroad seemed the best choice because of regularity, efficiency and the fact that many Catholic families lived along the route – the section crews were stationed every eight miles.
Of course, with all the travel, Father had to seek meals and shelter in each town. In this way he befriended many people, enjoyed home cooking and remembers, “… by being completely dependant on others directly for my food, lodging and even clothing and gas for my car, I knew I was more blessed materially than when I had been able to take a regular salary.”
Because Father Sasges was the first resident priest in the area, he had no suitable place to live.
“My first abode in Valemount was an eight by 10 foot shack, which Mrs. Jean Osadchuk kindly offered,” Sasges recalled. “It was beside the laundromat, which had a toilet and shower. When cold weather closed in, Floyd and Tony Larsen gave me a room in the basement, divided from Lyle’s room by a world map tacked up on the studding.”
Other early family names from the mid-’60s and ’70s included: Labbe, Alain, Rondeaus, Rose, Clark, Hert, Tzkachuks, Poolis, Masciarellis, Nehring, Lebrun, Cummings, and Donnelly.
Father Sasges described how people moved through while employed by Canadian National Railroad, in the logging camps, on construction of the highway, in the sawmills, and on the pipeline construction. Many were immigrant families who had not yet settled permanently. Others were moving back and forth from ranches in Alberta.
“I found myself a pioneer in that even where to meet for mass was not fixed. Our first masses were in an empty unit of the pipeline duplexes,” he said.
Homes, vacant school houses, the kitchen of the old community hall and other make-shift spaces were transformed by the people who gathered to pray, sing and receive the Lord’s Supper.
Three factors brought about great changes at this time:First, by the fall of 1967, the Valemount Church and residence, built with donated materials and volunteer labour from the wider community under Sasges’ design, was ready to be used.
Second, the opening of the highway meant even more movement among the parishioners and much more convenient, although less adventuresome, transportation for the priest.
Third, the strength of the ecumenical movement, with a fellowship among Father Emil Sasges (Catholic), Rev. Jim Cruikshank (Anglican) and the United Church pastors, inspired the nurturing of the faith of all regardless of denomination.
And yet, these obvious “improvements” made changes that could be seen as a loss, too.
Now Sasges lived alone, no longer interacting with the families for days at a time.””Around age 26, when I was newly ordained,
I spent free time working with home-built plane enthusiasts in Kamloops,” he said.
VALLEY VOICES (Part Two): Valley priest survives airplane crash
“Around age 26, when I was newly ordained, I spent free time working with home-built plane enthusiasts in Kamloops,” he said.
By the time he was assigned to the North Thompson area in l965, “… the providential gift of a home-built plane enhanced my mobility options.”
And stories are still told of the flying Catholic priest who used to land along the straight stretch of Highway 5 south of Avola and then hitchhike into town.
But it was this little airplane that, on Sept. 12, 1969, brought an entirely unexpected chapter to FatherSasges’ life story.
After attending a summertime Celebration Week in his home parish of Valemount, he enjoyed a canoe trip through Bowron Lakes.
Returning home in his tiny aircraft, he crossed over the Cariboo Mountains along a familiar route. Seeing weather closing in from all sides, an emergency landing on an alpine meadow looked like the best option.
A sudden gust of wind flipped the plane, broke a wing and left him stranded in a snowstorm while friends sent helicopters and aircraft combing the area for days.
With minimal supplies, but a great deal of practical experience, skillful hands and a hopeful imagination, he fashioned a sleeping bag, pack board and rationed his meagre food supplies.
Faith in God’s Providence looks altogether different from the vantage point of a mountaintop with search planes circling farther and ever farther away.
Bringing what he could carry, saying mass daily, sustained by the hymns and prayers of the many friends he knew were interceding for him, he began to walk out.
Confused by sounds of machinery, exhausted by the slopes, scratched and scraped by the tangled fallen trees, soaked by the crossing of rivers and swamps, enduring frigid nights and hungry days, supplies swept away by the river’s current, after 23 days alone and depending only on the determination to give God his very last effort, on Oct. 4, 1969, Father Sasges came to a clearing at the river’s edge at just the moment that a boat carrying hunters, scanning the bank for moose, caught sight of him and he was rescued.
He was 38 years old at the time.
And although people love to hear the details, Father is quick to point out to the listener, “The bodily marvels are far outweighed by the spiritual wonders I experienced in my ordeal.”
Father Emil also has time to pursue personal interests. Skating, swimming, cycling, skiing, blueberry picking as well as frequent hikes and physical labour help him stay in good health.
Father Sasges is gifted in design and practical carpentry skills. Both the Catholic centre and residence in Blue River and the church and residence in Valemount were built with donated materials, volunteer efforts and Father Sasges’ encouragement, work and design ideas.
From his early, personal experience, he has the capacity to value the beginner. Always a favourite with children, his gentle voice reading Scripture, in prayer and in song guides the individual seeker.In a quiet pause, he shares the central motivation of these years of dedication to the valley residents.
“My main concern is to help individuals foster an intimate life with Jesus each day. He is the only Saviour. He is eager to reveal Himself to those who humbly call on Him. And we may be happy just to settle for the blessing of being able to get to heaven through faith in Jesus and with genuine sorrow for any wrongdoing.”
“The great marvel to me,” he shares, “is this: If we are attentive to the prayer Jesus taught us, we become aware that we have a greater wonder here on earth to achieve: To win the hearts of the majority, so that God’s will be done on Earth as it is done in Heaven.”
Our Lady of the Snows Church in Blue River is open daily from approximately 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. Mass is Sunday noon with visiting priests.