Stella Johnson is known in the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith as a ray of sunshine, which is significant when Yellowknife can get as little as four hours of daylight in the middle of winter.
“I was born with it, like I’ve always been a friendly, easy person to talk to,” said the 58-year-old. “It’s important to me that people have a positive experience because I am the first person they meet.”
Johnson said she doesn’t take for granted the fact that in many ways, she works at the front lines of the Church in the Northwest Territories. Every day, she meets people from the community who are asking for baptismal certificates or marriage preparation courses. Sometimes, homeless people are just trying to escape the winter cold.
“A lot of them are polite. They see the statue of Mary (in the lobby) and they just sit there and pray,” she said. “There are plastic rosaries in a basket next to her so I just let them be. I’m not a bouncer.”
Johnson said everyone should feel welcome to come into the building. She believes it’s an important part of what the Church represents for people. Being a member of the Weledeh tribe, a small Dene community in Yellowknife, she wants to do her part in bridging that relationship between her people and their history with the Church’s residential school system.
When First Nations people come into the chancery office, Johnson makes a point to welcome them in their native language. She speaks Weledeh, Chipewyan and a little bit of Tlicho.
“People appreciate it when I can speak to them in their own language,” she said.
Johnson said that growing up in the residential school system, she understood how people of her generation became suspicious and turned away from the Church. If she can do something to help build a bridge between her people and the Church, she wants to do it.
“Stella is our hidden treasure — her smile, her presence and her skills are generously shared and all this without fanfare,” said Gerri Fletcher, co-ordinator of the diocese’s Religious Education office.
Johnson also helps co-ordinate travel for the clergy. With five pastors looking after 36 parishes and mission churches, priests are constantly going from village to village.
Basically, she goes where she is most needed, Johnson explained.
“A priest friend of mine gave me a card recently where he called me an ambassador for the Church,” she said. “That just made me so happy and I’m just so grateful to be a part of it.”