All posts by Lauri

Welcoming the stranger

St. Joseph’s Refugee Committee continues a more than fifty year legacy

Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

As they hope to welcome a new family this autumn, St. Joseph’s Refugee Committee in Grande Prairie is continuing a long and cherished legacy.

For the parish committee, it’s been more than fifty years of helping families and individuals resettle in Canada. Their first partnership with a refugee was in August of 1979, after the parish and the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan had signed on with the federal government as a refugee sponsorship entity.

Their work has continued since that time, with changing membership and levels of activity over the years. They have brought more than 60 individuals and families to the area, from persecuted, war-torn or impoverished countries.

Ranjini (left) and Noel Keerthikumar, originally from Sri Lanka, were sponsored by St. Joseph Church and resettled to Grande Prairie.

While it requires much perseverance, compassion and hard work, it’s been a deeply rewarding experience for committee members.

“Sometimes the obstacles are overwhelming, but the rewards are immeasurable,” said Sharon Biggs, who has been a part of the committee since 2011. “When you see the families you’ve helped in the past doing well, you see pictures on their Facebook of the kids first day at school or you see people advancing in their careers and helping others, you go to their weddings or hold their babies – that’s the real reward. It’s all about the relationships you form.”

Each family and individual touches their hearts in their own way, no matter the difficult and traumatic experiences the migrants are fleeing.

“Their resilience is incredible. Their courage, their faith – it inspires you. When I think of some of the things people are going through, it’s incredible,” said Biggs.

Helen MacDonald, left, and Sharon Biggs are both proud members of St. Joseph’s Refugee Committee.

September 26 is designated by the Catholic Church as World Day of Migrants and Refugees, held since 1914. It’s a day that has only gotten more relevant with time, as the number of refugees and displaced people across the world continues to increase.

“There are currently more than 85 million people now displaced in the world, and with recent events in Afghanistan that number will only grow,” said long-time committee member Helen MacDonald. “Who gets sponsored in Western countries – it’s only a drop in the bucket.”

MacDonald is a staple member of the committee, having first joined in 1988. At that time the committee sponsored Hien Tran Nguyen, a Vietnamese man who became a close friend of MacDonald, and he still holds a dear place in her heart today.

Hien Tran Nguyen, from Vietnam, was the first person the committee sponsored at the time Helen MacDonald joined. They remained close friends.

There are many sponsors that have become lifelong friends with committee members. Kenia Guerrero, who came to Grande Prairie with her sisters and mother through a sponsorship with St. Joseph’s Committee in 1989, keeps in touch even today with many members and the parish.

Her family had first fled from their home country of Nicaragua, where a guerilla war and communist take over were underway. They illegally crossed into Mexico and then into the United States before they were able to come to Canada. Kenia and her sisters were only small children at the time.

The family eventually got in contact with the Canadian embassy, and from there were sponsored by the St. Joseph committee in Grande Prairie.

Kenia Guerrero

“Grande Prairie definitely feels like home,” Kenia said. “When people ask what I am, I say ‘I am Canadian’. ‘Canada is home.’ I grew up here in Grande Prairie. I know the environment, the people, I know the schools.”

Read the full story in the October edition of Nothern Light

Preservation through song

Grouard man preserves his language and traditions through Cree hymns

By Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

Through his passion for music, Manny Chalifoux has found a way to keep the Cree language alive and to preserve a unique tradition of Cree Catholicism.

Most Sundays in Grouard, where Manny was born and raised, he can be found at the historic St. Bernard Mission Church, singing Catholic hymns and acclamations, all originally composed or translated into the Cree language.

Manny Chalifoux

His collection of Cree spiritual songs mainly comes from an old hymn book simply title “CREE HYMNAL”. The hymns contained within this worn and wrinkled yellow booklet are all original compositions. It’s a hymnal that has been passed around Indigenous Catholic communities of western Canada for generations.

In this Cree Hymnal Manny finds many of his songs. All hymns in here are originally composed in Cree.

The origins of this one-of-a-kind book are quite vague, Chalifoux says, especially because there is no date of publication within its pages.

“The book has been floating around this area for years – from Joussard, Grouard, Gift Lake and Atikameg,” he said. “I think the hymn book originated from somewhere in Saskatchewan or Manitoba by one of their priests. There’s no doubt the hymns are old – I mean real old. My great grandfather used to sing some of these.”

Like the oral traditions so common to Indigenous cultures, Manny first learned of these songs by having them passed onto him through community elders.

It was at the Kisimanito Centre in Grouard in the early 1980s, Chalifoux was first introduced to these Cree hymns by Johnny Waniandy, who would play the organ and sing them. Chalifoux’s instrument of choice is guitar, and he began figuring out the guitar chords to these songs by ear, based off the organ notes Waniandy had ascribed to them.

The Kisemanito Centre was a centre in Grouard that offered Indigenous and Catholic worship services. It was there that Chalifoux first discovered his love for Cree hymns and playing in the Church.

By 1984, Chalifoux began playing these songs at Mass.

“Johnny [Waniandy] grew up at the mission, and he learned to play the organ from a very young age. His language was Cree, and most of the kids at that time sang in Cree,” Manny shared. “I did not play much music before this time. When I joined I just knew how to play a few guitar chords.”

Now a staple of St. Bernard’s music ministry for 40 years, Manny has copied songs from this original small Cree hymnal into a large binder so he can more easily read them while playing at Mass.

Manny believes this music provides an effective way in preserving the Cree language.

“People often talk about how we’re losing our language, but we’re also losing our language because we’re not finding ways to practice it,” he said. “For me, I practice it when I sing in Cree. I try to keep my language that way and it’s a great way to preserve it…”

Read the full story in the October 2021 edition of Northern Light

Revitalizing the Girouxville Pilgrimage

With new dynamics as an archdiocesan event, locals hope to see a strong future for historic pilgrimage

By Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

The light of the sun slowly departed and was replaced by the light of the candlelit procession.

As the people processed through the woods behind the Our Lady of Lourdes shrine and grotto, the reflection of the candles slowly panned across the gravestone of Father Clement Desrochers – the priest who dedicated much of his spirit and energy to growing this very pilgrimage.

The candlelight procession following the vigil Mass, at the pilgrimage in Girouxville, August 14th.

For many long-time attendees, honouring the legacy of Father Desrochers is a vital part of the annual pilgrimage in Girouxville, held on August 15th, the feast of the Our Lady’s Assumption. The dynamic, energetic and devoted priest was a true mover and shaker of the area, and the pilgrimage is just one example of the permanent legacy he has left behind.

In his efforts to expand the pilgrimage, it was Father Desrochers who initiated the creation of the Our Lady of Lourdes shrine. He travelled throughout Europe to gather relics, the statues of the Blessed Mother and St. Bernadette, and a church bell that came directly from Lourdes, France.

“The heyday for this pilgrimage, for this local area, was with Father Desrochers. He’s that one that, you might say, ‘made it happen’,” said Maurice Blanchette, who was born and raised in Girouxville. “It began before him, but he’s the one who really made an event out of it. He went overseas and got relics. The idea for the shrine – that was his baby. And he did it all with little money, and it turned out so wonderfully. He made something quite big for this area, and a lot of this pilgrimage is honouring his legacy as well.

“Some of the local people have already canonized him in their hearts. We look back and see how he was a saint, how the Holy Spirit was with him in all he did.”

Maurice Blanchette

For Blanchette, the candles and crowds of the night vigil and procession always stand out as the highlight of the pilgrimage. Having attended since he was a child, Blanchette says it is an event of great significance, not only for his family, but for the whole community.

“This is an agricultural parish, so weather and crops are the main determiner of what happens in this place,” he said. “Typically the pilgrimage always comes shortly before harvest begins, so it was a pivotal point in community life. It always signified that harvest was just around the corner. The pilgrimage was our last kick at summer vacation before the harvest began and we entered a new chapter.”

The pilgrimage in Girouxville has a long history stretching back to the early 1940s. The first pilgrimage was held in 1941, just among the parish priests, parishioners and Sisters of the Holy Cross, and the following year it became a regional pilgrimage with many religious and faithful from surrounding communities. Father Desrochers erected the first grotto in 1942.

The pilgrimage in Girouxville has a long history, dating back to 1941.

The event has remained a staple for the area ever since. Many grainy black and white photos have been collected over the years, showing the grotto grounds filled with families, priests and Holy Cross nuns in habits. Within Desrochers’s memoire, several miracles are recorded as having occurred at past pilgrimages, including Jean Lapierre, a lumberjack who had been left physically disabled by an accident, who was healed before everyone’s eyes during the pilgrimage’s healing service.

“I have beautiful memories of going to the pilgrimage,” said Helen Couillard, who has spent her life in Girouxville and today helps run the Girouxville Museum – another staple of the area created by Father Desrochers.

Helen Couillard

“My great grandfather lived in a house that was right across from the grotto, and we would go every year – my mom, my dad and the rest of us kids. There were people everywhere; hundreds of people came to the pilgrimage back then. For this community – it meant a sense of prayer and comfort. It helped everybody,” said Couillard.

But, like many rural communities in Alberta and across Canada, Girouxville has dealt with a dwindling population over the past few decades. Beginning in the 1960s, Blanchette says, Girouxville slowly began to lose its population as the dynamics of society changed. The young people moved on to bigger cities like Grande Prairie, Peace River and Edmonton. Religion also began to lose its influence in people’s day-to-day life.

Daily Mass, adoration and many other devotions and services were a part of this year’s inaugural archdiocesan pilgrimage.

“There was a lot going on here at one time,” Couillard recalled.  “I grew up in Girouxville. I went to school right up to grade 12 at the convent here. We had the train. We had stores. But slowly everything went down. The roads came, and with that the school buses came, and soon we didn’t need the convent or school anymore. Slowly things went down, stores closed, and as the years went by there was less and less coming to the pilgrimage. And like a lot of little towns in this area, there was less and less people in general.”

Read the full story in the September 2021 issue of Northern Light

Watch the video recap of our 2021 Archdiocesan Pilgrimage in Girouxville here.

Fostering faith through Vacation Bible School

Parent-led initiative brings a joyful side of the Church to small children

By Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

Jamie Schoorlemmer looks over the grounds of Moonshine Lake Provincial Park, where some children are trekking through the woods, some are reciting the actions to faith-themed songs, others are making “Holy Spirit” campfires with cheese, pretzels and other food.

It’s a welcoming sight for the Rycroft parishioner, who played a leading role in bringing Vacation Bible School to the area this summer.

For the parents and more than 30 young people who attended, the experience was also a welcomed return.

As Mass begins, the children and teenaged “captains” of Vacation Bible School perform the actions of some of the faith-based songs they’ve learned.

“People are so anxious to be together and have fellowship with each other, and the kids are missing each other too,” said Schoorlemmer. “We decided if restrictions lifted this summer we would make sure this camp became a reality.”

For the past 17 years, Vacation Bible School has been a parent-led initiative offering a few days of fun, faith formation, and community to Catholic families in the archdiocese, and especially their young children. The program, filled with different faith-based crafts, music, and activities, is largely drawn from the Catholic Vacation Bible School program by CatChat.

Organized by the parishes of St. Joseph in Spirit River and St. Peter and Paul in Rycroft, the camp is typically attended by families from the area. Families from Silver Valley, Grande Prairie, Fairview, Dawson’s Creek and elsewhere have also participated.

Arts and crafts are a major part of the activities during the three-day Vacation Bible School, held this year from August 9-11.

What inspires Schoorlemmer most is the joy Vacation Bible School brings to young Catholics.

“It’s been a gift,” she said. “Seeing the smiles on their faces and the love of Jesus that is apparent through it all. And in helping others come closer to Christ – if it makes that difference for even one person, then that makes all of the efforts put into this worth it.”

Both Schoorlemmer and Rycroft parent Denise Beaupre have helped organize and volunteer with the camp over its 17 years. It was in 2004, when the Oblates of Mary Immaculate brought a 10-day mission to the area, that the Spirit River and Rycroft parishes were first encouraged to form a youth ministry team.

Organizer Jamie Schoorlemmer

In 2007, the team decided to create an annual Vacation Bible School for Catholic families in the area and around the archdiocese. In the initial years, the school was held over five half-days at St. Joseph’s Church in Spirit River, but it was eventually moved into a three-day camping excursion at Moonshine Lake.

Sherry Bourke came to the camp this year with seven of her grandchildren, but over the years 10 of her own children have attended Vacation Bible School.

“I like that my children can meet others in their faith, and it builds a stronger sense of community through the parents as well. And it shows the kids that learning our faith can have fun elements too,” said Bourke.

“It’s been nice seeing my children who once participated now come back and lead as captains.”

Parent and grandparent Sherry Bourke

Jill Yuha brought her four children from their home in Silver Valley, having heard about the camp in Spirit River’s parish bulletin. It’s been a joy not only to see the fun her children had, but also the opportunity it provided her to meet with other Catholic parents, who also want to see their families grow and thrive in the Faith.

“It’s great to talk to other like-minded parents and have conversations that are relatable,” she said. “We all have little kids; we’re all raising them in the Church. As a mom, it’s nice to have other faithful families around.”

Parent Jill Yuha, with her youngest son Kyle

Much of the programming focuses on making the faith accessible and tangible to small children, whether by music, arts and crafts, theatre and other demonstrations. This year the school is studying the seven sacraments, and as a way of teaching baptism, each family made a holy water font.

“It’s all intermingled – the faith station is what actually teaches us about our main subjects – whether it be the sacraments, the angels and saints, Mary – but what the little ones often remember most is the crafts they made, the songs they sang,” said Schoorlemmer.

“It’s education for the captains and parents too. It’s a refresher for things they learned in catechism that they can now pass on at a child’s level. And it gives parents the experience to see ways to pass on their faith to their children. Now they have the tools to teach their own kids as well.”

More than 30 children and teens attended the Vacation Bible School this year, which has now been held in the Spirit River, Rycroft and Silver Valley areas for 17 years.

For the teenagers and young adults who volunteer with the school, Beaupre believes they particularly enjoy it as a place where they can fearlessly live out their faith.

“The kids don’t have to be afraid to share that they’re here for faith, whereas at school they may feel pressure to cover that up,” she said. “So to see their smiles, you can tell they just feel free here to be themselves. They can live the part of their life they have to cover up among peers and the world at large.”

Concerning the captains and leaders, Schoorlemmer adds,

“It makes my heart happy to see these young teens, who are out in that secular world where it’s not easy in this day and age, and they’re free to express their faith here. It gives them the courage to go beyond this campsite and move that faith out into the world.”

Archbishop Gerard Pettipas, Fr. Emmanuel Ekanem, and this year’s captains.

As parents who have devoted many years of time and effort to make this Vacation Bible School a reality each summer, both Schoorlemmer and Beaupre hope the Vacation Bible School will continue on into the next generation – as a staple event of fostering faith among Catholic families in the area.

“We heard one of the captain’s say ‘One day I’m going to run this camp,” said Beaupre. “Hearing that is so encouraging – that we’re raising little leaders.”

Intentional living

Young Catholics in archdiocese find their faith deeply nurtured at St. Therese Institute

By Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

After graduating high school three years ago, Emily Bourke was uncertain of what path her life should take.

She had competing thoughts – to either go to university or to follow in the footsteps of her older siblings and spend a year at the St. Therese Institute of Faith and Mission in Bruno, Saskatchewan. When the Spirit River girl finally decided to go to St. Therese, she figured it would be a one-time experience before heading off to university and the so-called “real world”.

Emily Bourke, photo by Andrea Bator

However, the experience ended up affecting her so deeply and profoundly, Emily is now going back for her third year at St. Therese this fall.

Looking back, Bourke had no idea that decision was bound to become a three-year journey, growing her faith in ever deeper and more intimate ways.

“At first it was just something my mom really wanted us to try for a year. So I said I’ll do it just for a year and then head off to university,” Emily recalled. “I never would have thought I’d be now going back for my third year. But I ended up loving it.

Last year, seven young people from the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan took part in the St. Therese Institute’s faith formation program; some are returning this fall. Photo by Andrea Bator

“I came to this place where I saw how good life could be when you’re close to God, and, through the teachings of the Church, seeing how nothing makes sense unless God is involved. Before this I was going to church, but I was not committed as I am now. Today I can no longer go back to that former life, living it more so just for myself.”

The St. Therese Institute of Faith and Mission’s faith formation program offers young Catholics from across Canada and the world a chance to deepen their faith and form lifelong friendships and bonds with fellow Catholics, all rooted in the “little way” of St. Therese of Lisieux. Last year, seven young people from the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan attended.

Much like Bourke, spending a summer in St. Therese was also a tradition among Andrea Bator and her siblings. Bator is now heading back to St. Therese for her third year, leaving from her home in Grande Prairie.

Andrea Bator is going back for her third year at the St. Therese Institute of Faith and Mission this year.

What she enjoys most about St Therese is the intentionality of faith there, and how the program creates an environment of “prayer without ceasing.”

“I always dreamed of being formed in my faith and I tried to go to different things that would help with that, but nothing was really filling that desire in my heart,” Bator recalled. “So when I learned about St Therese, studying the Catholic faith around like-minded young people who are passionate about their faith – that really pulled at my heart and I knew I had to go.

“A big part of the community is the duty of the moment. Whether in class, washing dishes, whatever it is – it can all be made a prayer and a way to grow closer to God and encounter Him in whatever we’re doing. I found that very beautiful.”

Read the full story in the September 2021 issue of Northern Light

Water to the fire

Peace River pastor saves local parish from arson attempt

Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

Fr. Nel Esguerra had to put his years of firefighter training to the test to protect his parish from an arson attempt last week. But, he believes the miraculous intervention of God is the real reason his church is still standing.

It was around 11 p.m. on Saturday, July 3rd, that Archbishop Gerard Pettipas and Fr. Nel awoke to the blaring ring of the Our Lady of Peace Church’s fire alarm. The archbishop happened to be spending the night in Peace River, as he had plans to install Fr. Chukwudi Jieme as the new pastor in Grimshaw the next morning.

As the alarm rang through the rectory, both the archbishop and Fr. Nel looked around the building to see any signs of a fire. Because there had been a funeral at the parish that morning, Fr. Nel initially expected that incense had been left burning in the sacristy and this had triggered the alarm.

But as soon as the priest opened the door leading from the rectory to the sacristy, large clouds of black smoke began billowing out of it.

“Then I said, ‘Oh… this is not good,’” Fr. Nel recalled.

Our Lady of Peace Church in Peace River

The priest rushed forward to find out where this long trail of smoke was coming from. He peeked through the door that leads into the parish hall, and there he saw two flames near the main entrance. One flame was just starting to develop, but the other flame was already taller than him, and swiftly growing.

Instantly, Esguerra put his nearly ten years of volunteer firefighting experience to work. He rushed back to the kitchen to fill a pail of water and then got a garden hose. As he rushed around to begin extinguishing the two flames, he noticed that the window to the main entrance had been smashed in. Not only that, a third flame was also rising from the church basement.

When Fr. Nel finally made his way downstairs to put out that third flame, he found at the bottom of the steps what appeared to be a bottle filled with gasoline and a burning rag at its end. This type of homemade bomb is commonly referred to as a “Molotov cocktail”.

Fr. Nel was able to extinguish the flame in time, preventing the bottle from exploding.

The fire damage at the top of the stairs.

“My theory is the bottle was thrown in, hard enough that it smashed through the window and landed first on the carpet, and then it eventually rolled down the stairs causing the flame in the basement,” said Esguerra.

“If it had landed directly into the basement I think it would have exploded on the spot. If it did, it would not have taken long for that fire to spread and do a lot of very serious damage to this church. It is a miracle that that Molotov cocktail never exploded. I consider it an act of God.”

By the time Fr. Nel got out of the church the fire department and RCMP were just showing up. While the flames were now extinguished, the church was still filled with smoke. The fire department proceeded to help clear the church of smoke and investigate the area for any other fires or hazards.

Further damage from the fire.

Thanks to Fr. Nel’s courageous efforts, the damage to the church was limited. A section of carpet and walls are burned and damaged, and the smell of smoke still lingers in the church. But the parish was spared the damage seen in many other churches across Canada recently. In the last week of June, six churches were burned down in British Columbia, and others were damaged by fires in the Northwest Territories and Nova Scotia. Each fire is being treated as suspicious.

In Alberta, the historic St. Jean Baptiste Church in Morinville was engulfed in flames and burned down on June 30. As the fire began to uncontrollably consume its walls and interiors, the 100-year old church with its towering bell tower crumbled to the ground.

As Fr. Nel valiantly put himself through billowing black smoke to extinguish the flames engulfing his parish, thoughts of the church in Morinville, and the ashes and rubble it was reduced to, were running through his mind.

St. Jean-Baptiste Church in Morinville was destroyed by a fire on June 30. The fire is being treated as suspicious.

“The one thing in my mind at that moment was Morinville. That church was a symbol of faith, a symbol of the community, and for that building to no longer be standing there is very demoralizing,” said Esguerra. “And as I was putting out the fires, that was the one thing I kept thinking – I’m not going to let this symbol of faith and hope be taken away.”

The fires come in the aftermath of news reports of unmarked graves found near former Indian Residential Schools across Canada, most of which were run by Catholic religious orders. The stories have sparked a tremendous backlash against the Church, including accusations of genocide. However, a full investigation on these graves has yet to be completed.

In 2015, Dr. Scott Hamilton from the Department of Anthropology at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, was asked by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to complete an in-depth study and report on the deaths of residential school students and of burials on school grounds. His 44-page report states that communicable diseases were a primary cause of death during the 19th and 20th centuries, such as tuberculosis and the Spanish Flu. The often poor, crowded and out-of-the-way conditions of the residential schools would have increased the spread of these diseases and the lack of resources to combat them.

The discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School was the first of many recent discoveries of unmarked graves.

The Department of Indian Affairs that established the Indian Residential School system had no formal or written policy on the burial of children, nor funding for it. With limited resources to send bodies to their home communities and to maintain graveyards at the school, Dr. Hamilton writes that typically cemeteries were established on school grounds and marked with wooden crosses. This was often the only way of burying those who died at the schools, including students, teachers and religious.

Documentation of the existence of these gravesites goes back to 1907, though Hamilton’s report states that by the 1940s deaths at the residential schools had become increasingly rare. While there was often little work done to maintain these cemeteries, and many went into total neglect after the closure of the schools, Hamilton’s report found no direct evidence of a deliberate attempt to hide graves.

Since 2014, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have called for efforts to identify the number of bodies buried at these gravesites, to restore them, and to work towards other efforts to honour the memory of those deceased there.

Fr. Nel Esguerra’s homily the day after the arson attempt on his church has generated a lot of positive reaction on social media.

In our age of rapid information and social media, this issue has sparked and renewed tensions across Canada, for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. When Fr. Nel prepared for his homily on Sunday, July 4, he debated whether he should bring up the suspected arson attack on the church at all.

“I was worried that maybe I’ll say something too political in the heat of the moment,” he said. “But I thought – parishioners need to know what happened. And it’s a teaching moment for me, to walk the talk and be an example of how we should react on such an occasion. So I just prayed to be guided by the Holy Spirit, to respond in a way that was not from a position of hatred or pointing fingers and making accusations, but in a way that stops this cycle of hatred and revenge. Because it needs to stop.”

In his homily, Fr. Nel urged faithful to respond to such attacks on the Church with love, understanding and forgiveness. When we are faced with a damaging fire, we seek to put it out, not to stoke the flames and help it grow.

St. Jean-Baptiste Church, which stood for over a century, has now been reduced to rubble.

“We don’t let the church be burnt with anger and revenge, but we heal it with compassion, kindness, forgiveness and reconciliation,” Esguerra said in his homily. “The grace of God is sufficient. Therefore when we are weak, we know that our wounds and Christ’s wounds are united. That those thorns within us and the thorns inflicted on Him are united.

“We always have the choice on how to react to these tragic events. Let us choose to be on the side of the grace of God, and the grace of God will always tell us to forgive, to love and to care. Let us remember there is a chance for us to be reconciled, to be healed. Let us move forward with the grace of God.”

That homily, shared first as a livestreamed Mass on the parish’s Facebook page, has now spread around social media, with many commenting on its power and emotional impact. Global News even contacted Esguerra and asked to use a part of the homily in their news broadcast.

Looking back, Fr. Nel says there is much more to be thankful for than upset about.

The day after the fire, Fr. Nel and a group of parishioners got together to bless their church and pray to St. Joseph.

“It’s very sad to see the damage to this property, damage which could have cost lives, but people have shown so much support, and they have shown that they value their faith and they value this church,” he said. “People are volunteering to patrol the church, and even people from other communities are calling and asking if they can do anything to help.

“Those gestures made me realize that there’s so much to be grateful for. It could have been so much worse. And we were still able to celebrate Mass the next day.”

After the morning Mass on Sunday, some parishioners came back to the church at 3 p.m. to offer a prayer to St. Joseph. The priest and parishioners then went around the church seven times, blessing it with holy water and salt.

It is certainly a moment that has deeply affected Fr. Nel and the Catholic community of Peace River. While inspecting the church a few days after the fire, the priest found a small fragment of the rag that was used as a wick in the Molotov cocktail. He has kept it as a memento from the experience.

A piece of the wick from the Molotov cocktail that was thrown into the church.

At a time when the world seems overwhelmed by negativity, by the wickedness of humanity, the sins of the Church and the divisions in society, the Peace River pastor hopes people will seek ways to heal pain, and not to inflict it further.

“There’s still a long way to go. It will be a long haul, but that’s the life of the Church. There’s up and downs, and this is one of those down moments,” said Fr. Nel. “We will always be imperfect people, and there will always be people in the Church who do imperfect things. But in moments like this we must learn above all to follow the golden rule. And that rule comes with a twist. It means not only to do unto others what we would like them to do to us. It also means when someone does something bad to you, you respond by doing the opposite.

“We must always be the people who put water on the fire, not those who want to see it burn further.”

Conversations with Bertha: Eastern Catholics

“Conversations with Bertha” is a new feature that will appear from time to time in Archbishop’s Pettipas’ letters. These tales are of a purely Catechetical nature, and any resemblance between Bertha and any person known to the reader is purely coincidental.

Conversations with Bertha – #2
by Archbishop Gerard Pettipas, C.Ss.R.

I love pancake breakfasts.  When I see the sandwich board out that announces the Knights are having one after the Masses, I whisper a “Great!” under my breath.  I look forward to such occasions not only to have an elaborate breakfast (at least more elaborate than I cook for myself), but also just to meet people.  So a few weeks ago, that’s just what happened.  After I had filled my plate with pancakes and sausages, butter and syrup, and scrambled eggs, I wandered between tables looking for one that had one too many chairs for the people seated.  Lo and behold, Bertha was sitting next to any empty chair.

After an exchange of niceties with everyone at the table, Bertha turned to me and began.  “Your Grace, you know the Boychuck’s that live across the street from us … they say they’re Catholics as well.  But they don’t come to our parish; they go to the Ukrainian Church across town.  What’s that all about?”  As usual, I felt I needed to give some historical background to this.  My high school English teacher had more than once drilled this thought in my head: “any text without a context is a pretext.”  So I tried my best.

This conversation begins at a parish pancake breakfast, hosted by the Knights of Columbus.

“Well, Bertha, we have to see this from the perspective of the world in the first centuries of the Christian Church.  The Roman Empire was the dominant force from before Christ’s birth until a few centuries after.  They had followed upon the Greek Empire, so even though the Romans ruled much of the world around the Mediterranean, most of these people still spoke Greek and followed Greek customs.  The Roman Empire, in effect, had two centers of power: Rome, and Constantinople.  These came to be understood as the western empire (Latin speaking) and the eastern empire (Greek-speaking).  The Catholic Church was being established throughout both parts of the empire, but because their language, customs and ways of thought were different, the local Churches (or dioceses) were gathered around different patriarchates within these two arms of the Roman Empire.

“As the early Churches developed, they formed around specific cultures and languages which gave shape and form to their liturgies and some other practices.  These we still have in the Catholic Church as “rites”.  Of the 24 or so different rites in the Church, the largest and most extensive is the “Roman Rite”, which is found in most of the world.  Other rites also known to us in Canada are the Ukrainian, Syro-Malabar (from Kerala in India), Maronite (from Lebanon), and Chaldean (from Iraq and Syria) Churches.  Because the Church embraces so many, it is appropriately called “catholic”, which means universal.  In this sense, the Catholic Church is both local (in its diocese and its parishes) and universal (throughout the world).

Divine Liturgy celebrated by Ukrainian Catholics. Photo by Lincoln Ho

“Pope John Paul II drew our attention to this variety of Churches within the one Catholic family by stating that, “The Church needs to learn to breathe again with its two lungs – its Eastern one and its Western one.”  In his effort to bring together the East and West, the Holy Father issued two distinct challenges. Because Eastern Catholics are a minority, they must faithfully preserve their tradition and not be tempted to “Latinize” their practices.  By the same token, Roman Catholics should become more familiar with the liturgical and theological expressions of the Christian East.”

Bertha jumped in.  “So what have you done, Your Grace, to become more familiar with the Eastern part of the Church?  Have you ever gone to those places … Lebanon and Kerala and Syria?”

“Not all of them”, I admitted.  “But these days, many communities of these people now live in Canada.  We have many Ukrainian Catholics in western Canada; in fact, in our diocese there are Ukrainian Catholic churches in Grande Prairie, Hines Creek and High Prairie.  I’ve been to several of their Divine Liturgies – they call it that, rather than ‘Mass’.  But I have also attended liturgies offered by these other Churches.  When all the bishops in Canada gather at the end of September each year for our plenary assembly, those bishops are also with us, and one of our Masses or other prayer periods at the plenary will be conducted by those bishops.  While we Roman bishops don’t understand everything they’re saying, which is often in their own language, we recognize one another as full members of the one Body of Christ.”

Divine Liturgy celebrated by Ukrainian Catholics. Photo by Lincoln Ho

“You know, Your Grace, this is all so very interesting.  You open up my mind to so many things when we have these talks like this.  I thought all along that all Catholics are the same.  But I guess this isn’t true.

“Exactly, Bertha.  It’s especially amazing to realize that we can be so different in the Catholic Church, yet still be bound together in Jesus Christ by our faith, hope and love.  Our different rituals and languages are not barriers, but actually call us to love one another because we are both different and united.”  “I wish the whole world that we could be more like that”, Bertha offered.  “So do I, Bertha.  So do I.”

That’s when the Knights got everyone’s attention, and asked those who could to help put away the tables and chairs.  It was obvious that our pancake breakfast was over.  Some of us had fed on pancakes and sausages; others were fed with words and images.

Stay tuned for future installments of “Conversations with Bertha”

If you build it, they will come

High Level has big dreams of new parish hall project

Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

Priest and parishioners alike have big hopes for a new parish hall at Our Lady of Good Counsel in High Level.

Since Fr. Henry Kiggundi, FMH, arrived in High Level as parish priest four years ago, he felt a hall was one thing the church desperately needed.

“When I first got here I told the bishop – the only problem with this place is we don’t have a hall, and we will miss out on a lot without one,” said Kiggundi. “The church is a community. It is fellowship. But without a hall we don’t have as easy an ability to get together. Instead, you see people come for Mass and then leave right after.”

Fr. Henry Kiggundi looks over the plot of land where he hopes Our Lady of Good Counsel’s parish hall will be built.

It was an idea of Father Kiggundi’s that slowly began percolating in 2018, but is now becoming a more tangible reality. Last autumn, the parish hall project took a major step forward when Our Lady of Good Counsel’s building committee hired an architect to make preliminary designs and a preliminary budget.

The project has now become much more than a hall, said Myles Bukowsky, chair of the parish’s finance committee and building committee. It would be an overall expansion of the church, including some much-needed storage space, offices, a kitchen, and an area for teaching catechism and sacramental preparation. The preliminary design shows the general layout of the kitchen, storage spaces, meeting rooms and the hall itself. Currently, the expected preliminary budget for the parish hall is $3.5 million.

Now with a visual design on hand, Bukowsky and Kiggundi hope interest in the project will increase.

Myles Bukowsky shows some of the preliminary architectural designs for the parish hall project.

“Without a direct focus on the project, people will worry about other things,” said Kiggundi. “That’s why we needed to have a plan in place for the design and fundraising. Otherwise, it will always feel like it’s too big of a project for us to do, and there’ll be no way to get it off the ground.”

The hall for Our Lady of Good Counsel would provide new meeting spaces for the parish’s Knights of Columbus, Catholic Women’s League and El Shaddai group. As well, receptions for funerals or weddings could be held there.

When the building of the current church in High Level was approved in 1998, a parish hall was a part of its original blueprints. However, due to financial constraints, the hall was removed from the design when construction began.

Preliminary designs

Bukowsky agrees with Father Kiggundi that a hall is an essential part of parish life.

“When I lived in Lloydminster I was on the building committee there and we did a similar project,” recalled Bukowsky. “When that church’s hall was finally completed, it made a huge difference for the parish community. All of a sudden, the church was always busy and bustling. Every weekend someone rented out the hall for weddings, baptisms, sometimes for a certain saints’ feast day – any excuse for a gathering.

“High Level is a centre of activity for this region. This is the largest parish in [Deanery 5]. Once the hall is there, people will find a reason to use it.”

The church has done some fundraising for the hall through their weekly bulletin, where all proceeds from local business ads go directly to the hall project. It generates $250 each week for the project. However, the parish is also focused on clearing up its debt, which must be done before any major fundraising on the hall can begin.

Myles Bukowsky, chair of the parish’s finance and building committees, has played a leading role in getting the hall project off the ground.

Along with the $10,000 that was spent to create the preliminary designs, the parish has more than $42,000 currently raised. The parish must have raised 60% of the project budget before construction can begin. While there is still a long way to go, the parish remains hopeful that the hall will one day be a reality. Though it may take some years and much perseverance.

“We’re just waiting for COVID to end and then we will be posting this two-page layout from the architect in the church and start using it for presentations,” said Bukowsky. “That’s the next phase. Once the COVID restrictions are fully lifted, we’re going to start looking towards events and fundraising.”

Conceptional art depicting what Our Lady of Good Counsel Church will look like after the parish hall is completed.

 

 

Standing the test of time

Historic church in Friedenstal commemorates its 100th anniversary this year

Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

The towering steeple of St. Boniface Church has stood high above the gravel roads and farmland of Friedenstal for over a century.

From its rugged exterior of deteriorating paint and wood, one may expect St. Boniface Church, which has been closed since the 1970s, to be worn out and decrepit. But stepping inside, its altars, statues, crosses, vestments and chandelier are well preserved and almost miraculously pristine – looking as if the church had only closed its doors that previous Sunday.

St. Boniface Church in Friedenstal.

The church not only celebrates its centennial anniversary this year, this month honours the church’s patron saint – St. Boniface. His feast day was June 5.

Living just up the road from the historic church is Ed and Elizabeth Dechant. The couple have spent much of their life in Friedenstal. Ed’s ancestors first settled there from Germany in 1916. His mother’s side of the family fled to Canada from Russia in the 1920s, to escape communist persecution.

Even by the time his father arrived in 1916, Ed says Friedenstal was already well established. The area was settled by more than 50 different families, who were nearly all German Catholics.

Ed and Elizabeth Dechant inside St. Boniface Church, where its statues and altars are still in near-pristine condition.

“Pretty much every corner of the land somebody had taken,” he said. “People started coming here and surveying the land around 1909, and after that it just exploded. And the families didn’t travel much in those days; they pretty much stayed, hunted moose and were self-sufficient.”

Like much of the early Church in western Canada, the first priests to come to Friedenstal were Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The majority of St. Boniface’s priests came from Germany, and the parishioners were very insistent on having a German priest for their area.

The original log church in Friedenstal from 1913-1920.

They set up a small log church around 1913, with the permission of Bishop Emile Grouard, OMI. In 1920 construction began on their current St. Boniface Church. It was designed and built by Brother Eisemon, OMI. The first Mass was celebrated on Christmas Eve, 1921 with its first pastor Fr. Wilhelm Ebert. Ed says every Mass was around 2 and half hours, as the sermon was preached in both English and German.

The church was blessed by Bishop Grouard on August 15, 1922.

Shortly afterward, the Sisters of Providence established a convent and boarding school that was attended by children from Friedenstal and outlying areas. Ed had never learned to speak any English until he began attending that school.

“When the nuns came, a new rectory was built and the nuns took over the old one as a convent,” said Ed. “When I was a kid, the church was pretty active. They had a resident priest, and a younger priest that helped him. It’s the place where people would met. I went to school right next door, and got to know the kids who came that would stay at the dorms.”

A group of Sister of Providence nuns in Friedenstal get ready to travel by horse.

Elizabeth’s most cherished memory of St. Boniface is the church choir. With a parish priest that was fond of the traditional music of the Church, there was great efforts to ensure the 30-person choir was up to the highest standard.

“One of our priests Father [Anthony] Herter just loved classical music,” Elizabeth recalled. “They would sing all in Latin, and they arranged the singing in four different parts. It was quite a commotion. The choir had to be as good as possible.”

The Corpus Christi feast was one of the parish’s biggest celebrations.  Parishioners would plant trees in honour of the feast day, and hold a procession through the whole community, with altars set up throughout the area.

The high altar at St. Boniface Church, as it stands today.

In the winter time, a fire had to be started in the furnace of the church every Saturday evening to prepare for Sunday Mass and “get the chill out” of the building. Ed says that sometimes, depending on who started the fire, it would be pretty smoky in the church and you would be tempted to go outside during Mass to try and cool down.

In the 1950s some refurbishments were done on the church, replacing some of the original woodwork and repainting it. But no serious restoration work has been done on the church since that time. Fr. Martin Doll, OMI, was ordained a priest at the church on June 30, 1952.

When the railway was established along Fairview in the late 1920s, gradually all major resources began to centralize in that area. By the mid-1960s Fridenstal’s school shut down, and then in 1969, St. Boniface Church’s doors were closed. Locals then had to make the trip to Fairview for school and Sunday Mass.

Elizabeth Dechant holds up a German-English Bible, one of many unique items still preserved at St. Boniface Church.

At the time, Ed says opinion was split. The church was still very active, but with the closure of the school many expected that the church would be next.

Today there are only about 25 families in the Friedenstal area. As Elizabeth says, now the farms are getting bigger, but the people are getting less.

Even if it has been closed for more than 50 years, St. Boniface Church is one part of Friedenstal that still remains.

“For a 100-year-old church it’s in pretty good shape, but it needs some work,” said Ed.

Ed and Elizabeth outside of St. Boniface, where a new paint job is certainly needed.

One major issue is that the church was built without a solid foundation. When it was constructed in 1920, they used only big rocks and put timbers over them. Now that the church has been designated as a historical site by the province, Ed and Elizabeth hope in the future it can get some needed restoration work on its foundation and exterior.

In May 1982, the Friedenstal Historical Society was established. They own and look after the property today.

“Any government funding we would get for it we would have to match it locally,” said Ed. “With COVID a lot of fundraising we would normally do has been put on hold.

“The funding we need could get pretty major considering it needs a new foundation.”

The high altar at St. Boniface before its closure in 1969.

Restored and renewed

With his parish now repaired from major flood damage, Kenyan priest reflects on his tumultuous first months in Canada

By Kyle Greenham
ArchGM News

As Fr. Charles Mungai, FMH, looks over the newly renovated and restored parish hall at St. Henri’s Church, the vivid and chaotic memories of the priest’s initial months in Canada run through his mind.

The Franciscan Missionary of Hope arrived in Fort Vermillion from the Diocese of Nairobi, Kenya on January 29, 2020. He was about to begin a new chapter as the parish priest in Alberta’s oldest settlement. But little did he know, a world-shattering pandemic and a once-in-a-century flood were also on the horizon.

Fr. Charles Mungai had to face many challenges when he moved from Kenya to northern Alberta – from -50 degree weather, a pandemic that shut down the world, and a cataclysmic flood.

Coming to Canada in the midst of -50 degree weather, Mungai was sure his biggest challenge would be surviving these bitter cold temperatures. Then, just one month into his time as pastor, the initial COVID-19 lockdowns were ordered across Alberta and the world – closing churches, schools and businesses everywhere.

Mungai was no longer able to publicly celebrate Mass or share the Gospel with the students of St. Mary’s Elementary School. In fact, nearly every aspect of daily life was brought to a halt.

It was not the expected beginning to Father Charles’ ministry in Canada.

If that wasn’t enough, only a few weeks later Mungai received a bright red piece of paper on his doorstep. It was a mandatory evacuation notice for all residents in the low-lying areas of Fort Vermillion. It ordered them to immediately pack what they could and leave their homes, as the Peace River was now projected to flood the entire area.

On Sunday, April 26, the river began to do just that.

The flood damage to St. Henri’s parish hall is assessed in May, as the flooding waters from the Peace River were beginning to recede.

The mighty Peace River is only a stone’s throw from the doorsteps of St. Henri’s Church. As large ice jams caused the water levels to rise, the Church’s basement hall, as well as the cemetery and the basement of the neighbouring rectory, were quickly flooded.

“I was in a state of just total confusion,” Mungai recalled. “I just couldn’t understand these events playing out. As soon as I thought that I was about to settle down – something else came up.

“It’s an experience I will never forget in my life time.”

Mungai stayed at a variety of places as he waited for the flood to recede, including the rectory in High Prairie and Archbishop Pettipas’ home in Grande Prairie.

The Fort Vermillion flood of April 2020 brought major damage to the low-level areas of the community. It was the largest flood in nearly a century.

When Mungai finally returned to Fort Vermillion on May 12 to assess the damage, he discovered more than $400,000 in damage to the church and rectory. As well, chunks of ice and driftwood floated into the town’s Catholic cemetery, nearly flooding and covering the entire area. The church still had electricity, but its water lines and plumping all had to be replaced.

St. Mary’s Elementary School, situated not far from the school, was also heavily damaged by the flood, and was subsequently demolished.

“By the time we came back the water had receded, but you could see the signs that the water had just wrecked total havoc,” Mungai said. “The whole basement was full of water, nearly to the roof. Books, sacramental items, chairs, furniture, the kitchen appliances, everything was ruined.”

The rectory beside St. Henri’s Church was also flooded. Water reached to nearly the roof of the rectory basement.

By the beginning of July 2020, Mungai returned to Fort Vermillion to stay. Shortly after, St. Henri’s celebrated its first public Mass since the flooding. The bathrooms and waterlines remained out of use, but parishioners were eager to return to the church.

Nearly 30 people showed up to that first public Mass, with COVID-19 restrictions still in place.

“Those who were around were very hungry for the Mass,” said Mungai. “Although Fort Vermillion was still very much deserted at that time. Many had gone to High Level and elsewhere due to flood damage.”

Restoration work on the rectory and church began that July. Entirely new flooring, tiling, insulation, drywall and panelling were installed at both the rectory and parish hall. Many new appliances, toilets and other essentials were brought in. Heating and electrical units were all replaced.

Fr. Charles looks over the newly restored parish hall at St. Henri’s. All that’s needed now is the tables, chairs and other items.

As of this summer, the parish hall has never looked cleaner and more up-to-date – a far cry from when it was full of nothing but river water and floating chairs, textbooks and silt.

Now that the parish hall and rectory have been repaired, restored and recovered, some sense of normalcy has returned to Mungai’s life. Like all of us, he is still reeling with the pandemic and its restrictions, and the hall still needs new chairs, tables and other items.

“After all of the chaos of the flood and the pandemic, now there’s hope. There’s calmness. It is good,” he said.

The Catholic cemetery of Fort Vermillion was also flooded. Volunteers helped plant new soil and grass and remove the driftwood that the Peace River brought with it.

Mungai has kept some written notes from this experience, so that one day he can write his memoir and detail this most tumultuous of adventures – his first three months in Canada, and the global pandemic and the cataclysmic flood that greeted him upon arrival.

“One day I look forward to retelling this story of what happened to me when I came to Canada. When I was posted in St. Henri’s in Fort Vermilion and all these crazy events that came with it.

“Hopefully I will age gracefully so I can tell the story.”

The renewed and restored parish hall at St. Henri’s Church.