Oblate missionary spent 25 years in community

Salluit mourns death of Father Kees Verspeek

By PUTULIK ILISITUK, Special to Nunatsiaq News

People in Salluit recently learned about the death of Father Kees Verspeek, an Oblate missionary from Kessel-Lo, Belgium, who spent nearly 25 years in Salluit.

Father Kees was nearly 95 when he passed away March 15 in Belgium.

Father Kees, who lived in Salluit from 1951 to 1975, was affectionately known to the Inuit as Tunusuituk, meaning "one whose back of head has the same curve as his neck" – but he wasn't offended by this nickname.

Verspeek, who was born on April 29, 1912, took his first vows on September 8, 1934, was ordained to priesthood on July 2, 1939 and headed to the Arctic as a missionary with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

Father Kees arrived in Salluit, then known as Sugluk in 1951. He came to replace Miqquituk, a priest called "the bald one," a veteran pilot from the Second World War whose real name was Charlie.

During the 1950s, the Sugluk region had few amenities. In summer, there was a tent village on the tundra, and, come winter, people lived in igloos of snow and ice.

The only other Qallunaat in the vicinity were at the Hudson Bay and the Revillion Frères trading posts.

Tunusuituk became not only a missionary but also a health care provider, teacher, mechanic, and provider of communications, feeding and serving the Inuit of Salluit for nearly 25 years.

Elders recall how Tunusuituk saved peoples' lives by administering much needed medicines and treatment when some were on the brink of death. He embraced the Inuit, their culture and language, adopting their way of life and becoming a beloved friend of many.

Tunusuituk saw much progress as Inuit moved from igloos to houses, from dog teams to machines, from "beggars" to providers.

Although at times he was known to be a strict man, Tunusuituk stayed on.

For reasons that are still not fully known today, he was asked to go in 1975 and left with a heavy heart. He went on to serve as a priest in Quebec's Lower North Shore and later moved back to his home in Belgium.

Tunusuituk returned to visit Salluit on two occasions, a highlight for him and Sallumiut.

He died March 15 at 94 years and 11 months.

His funeral took place March 20 at the Saint John the Evangelist church in Blanden, Belgium and is buried in the cemetery of Abbaye-Park at Heverlee.

Salluimut also honoured the memory of Tunusuituk in a memorial service presided over by Father Joseph Baril O.M.I., an Oblate missionary who has served in Nunavik since the 1970s.

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