A Gaelic church service in Cape Breton

by May 23, 2013

Although Gaelic-speaking ministers and priests were once plentiful in Nova Scotia, only a precious few church services now take place through the medium of Gaelic. For the last five years, there have been only a few each year. One of them is the annual ecumenical Gaelic service held in Cape Breton each May in conjunction with Gaelic Awareness Month in the Province of Nova Scotia.

On Sunday, May 19, I attended the 2013 Seirbheis Ghàidhlig Uil’-Eaglaiseil, the fifth annual ecumenical Gaelic service. This year, the service was held at Little Narrows Presbyterian Church, Eaglais Chléireach a’ Chaolais Bhig, which is just off the Trans-Canada Highway next to the Little Narrows cable ferry. My photo doesn’t do the building or the location justice — I took it of the back of the church, and the view of the water on the right-hand side is blocked by the cars — but it does illustrate the gorgeous weather we had that day.


Little Narrows Presbyterian Church

Little Narrows Presbyterian Church


This year, the sermon was given by Reverend Ivan Gregan of Port Wallis United Church, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. I’m a member of Port Wallis and Reverend Ivan is my minister. He has participated in the service in past years, but I could never manage to get myself to Cape Breton for the all-Gaelic service before. This year, for the first time, I finally hitched a lift with Rev. Ivan and it worked out really well. We had communion in the morning at Port Wallis and then we hoofed it to the car and got on the road, not even stopping for a bite to eat till the Westville Tim Horton’s on the Trans-Canada.

The service took place on Pentecost, Di-Dòmhnaich na Caingis. The scripture readings were:

Gnìomharan 2:1-21  [Acts 2:1-21]
Ròmanaich 8:14-17 
 [Romans 8:14-17]
Eòin 1:1-9
  [John 1:1-9]

Rev. Gregan’s sermon drew mainly on John 1:1-9 which reads as follows in the Gaelic Bible:

An toiseach bha am Facal, agus bha am Facal maille ri Dia, agus b’e am Facal Dia. Bha e seo air tùs maille ri Dia. Rinneadh na h-uile nithean leis; agus as eugmhais cha do rinneadh aon nì a rinneadh. Annsan bha beatha, agus b’i a’ bheatha solas dhaoine. Agus tha an solas a’ soillseachadh anns an dorachadas, agus cha do ghabh an dorachadas e. Chuireadh duine o Dhia, dom b’ainm Eòin. Thàinig esan mar fhianais, a chum fianais a thoirt mun t-solas, a chum gun creideadh na h-uile trìdsan. Cha b’esan an solas sin, ach chuireadh e a chum gun tugadh e fianais mun t-solas. B’e seo an solas fìor a tha a’ soillseachadh gach uile dhuine a tha a’ teachd a chum an t-saoghail.

Rev. Ivan’s message was titled “Càit’ a bheil an solus?” – Where is the light?  The message had a Maritime flavour replete with images of the lighthouse, the compass, the bell buoy, and a story of being lost in the fog in a small boat with his father. He asked us to consider what kind of guiding light we had in our own life. Words of wisdom from a friend, family member, or God could be that light. And in fact, as John said, Jesus himself was both the light and the word. Therefore, we should not be afraid; even when we think we are lost, the word and the light will guide us.


Ivan Gregan preaching at Little Narrows Presbyterian Church

Ivan Gregan preaching at Little Narrows Presbyterian Church


There was a very good crowd in attendance, including folks from the local community and other areas of Cape Breton, along with our own small Dartmouth contingent. (There were a couple of full pews that I couldn’t include in the photo, due to church fixtures getting in the way.)


Little Narrows ecumenical Gaelic service congregation

Little Narrows ecumenical Gaelic service congregation


In addition to the sermon, the service featured Gaelic worship contributions from five Cape Breton ministers, including Rev. Andrew MacDonald’s gairm gu adhradh [call to worship], Rev. Alison Etter’s ùrnaigh dlùthachadh [prayer of approach], Rev. Brian MacLeod’s  dearbhachd mathanais [assurance of forgiveness], Rev. Peter MacDonald’s Ùrnaigh an Tighearna [The Lord’s Prayer], and Rev. Lydia MacKinnon’s beannachadh [benediction].

The service also featured Gaelic scripture readings from three people in the congregation (including myself), hymns sung by the congregation, and musical contributions from Catrìona Parsons, a local Gaelic Choir, and a choir of students from Sgoil Mhic Fhraing a’ Chaolais (Rankin School of the Narrows) directed by their teacher Meaghan O’Handley. They sang “Dhè, bu toil leam a bhith ‘nam Chrìosdaidh [‘na mo chridhe]” which was translated into Gaelic by Catrìona Parsons — dìreach àlainn. An offering was also collected.


Little Narrows church Gaelic service offering

Little Narrows church Gaelic service offering


As mentioned, the service featured the participation not only of Rev. Ivan Gregan, but also of five other ministers of both the United Church of Canada and the Presbyterian Church of Canada.

Apart from Rev. Ivan who spoke Gaelic in the home growing up, all the ministers are learning Gaelic as adults. Nach mìorbhaileach a tha sin! It was very heartening to see so many new ministers so dedicated to learning and using Gaelic in their worship and their lives. Catrìona Parsons interviewed Rev. MacKinnon before the service:

Lydia sums up the reasons of all of them for learning Gaelic: “My hope is that someday I’ll be able to conduct worship in Gaelic … the language of those who erected both church buildings in which I serve. It would be wonderful to carry on the tradition of praising God in the Gaelic, as well as being able to read, write and speak my ancestral language.”

They graciously gathered together for a photo after the srùbag (tea and home-baking) which followed the service. Pictured from left to right are:

Mrs. Catrìona Parsons, former Gaelic instructor at St. Francis Xavier University and current employee of the Office of Gaelic Affairs, Province of Nova Scotia, who plans the service each year and has been teaching Gaelic to the Cape Breton ministers.

Rev. Ivan Gregan, Port Wallis United Church, Dartmouth.

Rev. Andrew MacDonald, host of the service and minister of the Saint Andrew’s Whycocomagh and Little Narrows Presbyterian Charge since July 2011.

Rev. Alison Etter, minister of the joint United Church Parishes of Greenwood, Baddeck, and Middle River-Baddeck Forks since August 2011.

Rev. Peter MacDonald, Presbyterian minister in the Boularderie Charge, Bras d’Or and Ross Ferry Churches, in November 2010.

Rev. Lydia MacKinnon, Presbyterian minister serving the Mira Pastoral Charge, taking in St. Columba Presbyterian Church, Marion Bridge, and Union Presbyterian Church, Mira Ferry since October 2012. Interestingly, Rev. MacKinnon is the daughter of the Rev. Dr. A. D. MacKinnon, who was the minister of Little Narrows Church and St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Whycocomagh for 40 years and preached in both English and Gaelic.

Not pictured is Rev. Brian MacLeod who has been the minister in the Presbyterian Parish of Knox, Baddeck, and Ephraim Scott, South Haven since August 2012.


Ministers at the Gaelic ecumenical service

Ministers at the Gaelic ecumenical service


On a totally different topic, during the drive to Cape Breton we had a surprise in the Mt. Thom area — we saw a BEAR come out of the woods next to the highway on the westbound side! We saw it at about the 138 km marker on the Trans-Canada Highway, 5 km east of exit 18a for Mt Thom/Kemptown. I don’t go camping much (“never” would be more accurate), so this was the first bear I ever saw outside of a zoo. As I watched it in the rear-view mirror I saw it come close to the edge of the road; I really hope that it turned around and went back into the woods! We drove past too quickly for me to get a picture, but on the way back home I took a photo of the approximate place we’d seen it, just to help me remember the sighting…


Chunnaic sinn mathan an seo!

We saw a BEAR here!


Agus sin e! Latha gu math fada — a very long day.

P.S. If you want to learn a bit about bears in Nova Scotia Gaelic oral tradition, see a summary of Tiber Falzett’s conference paper “’Fhir dhuibh nan spòg’: The Bear in the Scottish Gaelic Imagination, a discussion of Òrain a’ Mhathain (Bear Songs) in the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia Gàidhealtachd.”

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