The Meaning of Service

by Dr. Gerry Turcotte, President, St. Mary’s University

“Let us come into His presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to Him with songs of praise!” ~Psalm 95:2-3 ~

As a Canadian I have always viewed Thanksgiving as more of an American holiday, and certainly this was the perception of many people overseas where I lived for years. In fact, though, there is an account of Martin Frobisher celebrating thanksgiving mass as far back as 1578 in Newfoundland. (That he apparently never visited the island, and that it was most likely the Rev. Robert Woolfall who led the first prayer service in North America after his ship was separated from Frobisher’s, does not diminish the historical significance of the event.) We know that a Thanksgiving Day mass was held to celebrate the end of the Seven Years’ War, and that these celebrations were held all over Canada from 1799 onwards. In 1872 the event was used to celebrate the Prince of Wales’ recovery from a serious illness.

There is also an intriguing reference to Thanksgiving celebrations in The Calgary Weekly Herald of October 26, 1883, so expertly managed that “strangers appeared to think that we had the experience of a pre-historic age in our due observance of the occasion”. For a time Thanksgiving was celebrated simultaneously with Armistice Day on November 11, but in 1931 they became separate holidays. The government of Canada formalized the second Monday of October as the official date for the Thanksgiving holiday in 1957.

Perhaps because of the overwhelming American ownership of the event, promulgated in particular through popular culture, it may be difficult to remember at times that this is not so much a celebration of foundational country-making, but a thanksgiving ceremony that acknowledges God’s grace for our abundant harvest. For many it is a time to pause and acknowledge family, through wonderful sit-down meals, quiet reflection or even family camping expedition.

For me it is all of this and more. On October 14, while I will be thanking God for the many blessings in my life, I will also express gratitude for the gift of education that is available to so many. This fall, for example, St. Mary’s University campus welcomed a record number of students. It was a joy to watch their eager faces, to see the great enthusiasm that the possibility of a university education brought them. I know that they, in turn, will be expressing thanks for the dedicated staff and professors they encounter, and the opportunities their degrees present.

Indeed, the idea of a bountiful harvest needs to be understood within the full scope of God’s gifts to us — as gifts of compassion and discernment; of the opportunity to learn and teach; of community and outreach. These are reasons indeed to give thanks. However we choose to celebrate, thanksgiving should be an opportunity for reflection, hope and perhaps a fair bit of joyful noise.