ESKASONI: A First Nations man with deep ties to Chapel Island’s Mission to St. Anne was ordained a deacon on September 20. Such an event is a big moment in anyone’s life but, in this case, it’s a big moment for an entire nation.
Thomas Sylliboy’s ordination makes him the first Mi’kmaq to be ordained to any office of the Catholic Church in over 409 years.
“I’m the first that I know of anyway,” he told The Reporter late last week. “I don’t know how to describe it.
“When we started the process, there were several of us but we finished with just eight. Our first class had 13 of us, but on September 20th at St. Ninian Cathedral in Antigonish, there were eight of us ordained under Archbishop Brian Dunn.
“I was nervous. Things like this don’t happen every day.”
Sylliboy had a long road to that special day in Antigonish. Indeed, it was all the way back in 2012 at the ordination of his friend, Deacon Mike Doyle, that he first mulled over the prospects of becoming a deacon.
“After the ordination, there was a reception at the hall, so I went and there were a lot of priests there,” he said. “One of the priests approached me; his name was Father Lloyd Dyer. He said I should be a deacon, and I said ‘not me father.’ He said he was serious, and I said I was serious too.
“I think the calling started there.”
The following year, Sylliboy approached his parish priest, Father Martin MacDougall, and asked about the specifics of becoming a deacon. Father MacDougall, knowing Sylliboy’s volunteer history, said the Eskasoni resident was already pretty much doing the work of a man of God.
“You go to nursing homes and visit the elderly, the sick, you help out in your community,” Sylliboy said.
He met with the director of deacons after that, and in September of 2014, his official studies began to prepare him for becoming a deacon. This included StFX courses taken remotely. It also included some very impressive time management skills on Sylliboy’s part.
His day job relates to social work in Eskasoni, and that kept him tied up from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. during the week. Once 7 p.m. rolled around, he was hitting the books until well into the evening, sometimes as late as 10:30 or 11 p.m.
“That was my typical day,” Sylliboy said, adding that God helped him through those times. “Without Him, I’m nothing. A priest once told me, if you put yourself before God, you’ll go down fast. But if you put God first, He’ll guide you.
“There were days when I said ‘what am I doing,’ but the next morning was a whole new day.”
Sylliboy might be from Eskasoni, but his connection to Chapel Island is a significant one. He’s been a key figure in volunteering there as well.
“I’m the coordinator of the Mission to St. Anne,” he said. “I’ve been doing that a long time. I’ve been with the grand council since 1990, July 29, and I was appointed by Grand Chief Donald Marshall Senior.
“You do that sort of thing from your heart.”
The deacon said he wasn’t without a very good support system in preparing to be ordained. He said his wife Frances, was a great support and fellow deacon Berkley Guthro was a mentor to him. His Mi’kmaq elders also offered him a great deal of guidance, he said.
Sylliboy’s mother passed on in 2016, but the deacon said he remembers a conversation he had with her relating to his goals.
“One day she asked me what the deacon thing was all about,” he said. “I remember what she told me; ‘if it was meant to be, son, for you to be a deacon, it will happen.’”
Having lost his father at the age of 12, Sylliboy spent some of his childhood with his grandfather. His grandfather also taught him a few lessons that, in later years, proved very significant.
“My grandfather taught me to always dress well on Sunday,” he said.”He always dressed up: dress shirt, dress pants, and a tie. I always wondered why he dressed up, and now I have an idea.”
While the deacon is a pretty busy guy with his church and community service, he’s a man of various interests.
The first black belt in Eskasoni, Sylliboy was given his first dan under the Chong Lee brand of Tae Kwon Do back in 1982. He also plays a mean guitar, and can be heard performing with The Relatives wherever good music is appreciated.