Parishioners at St. Francis de Sales Parish in High River celebrated their first Mass together following the devastating June flood outdoors on Sunday, Aug. 25.
Flood waters destroyed the carpeting and walls, and damaged the pews in the church.
Local residents' lives were turned upside down following the devastating June flood in High River that drew national attention and forced the evacuation of the southern Alberta town.
But while the town's St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church suffered major damage, the parish has pulled together and expects to have the church open again in time for Christmas.
For the first nine weeks while the church was being restored, parishioners celebrated Sunday Mass in the United Church in the nearby hamlet of Blackie while the pastor did the parish's business on a laptop in his car.
"Our church community was divided. People were displaced to friends and family and to evacuation centres in Blackie, Okotoks, Nanton and Vulcan," said parishioner Luella Wojcik.
On Aug. 25 and Sept. 1 the congregation came together in beautiful weather for outdoor Masses followed by picnics. About 300 people attended each of these two Masses.
"We were finally together at one site for the first time in two months," said Wojcik. "It was a joyful celebration of the resilience of our faith community."
Since then, Masses have been held at Spitzee School, two blocks from the church.
Wojcik recalled that during the flooding, her husband, Maj, a volunteer maintenance person at the church, was roused out of bed by an early morning phone call.
He was told that the roof on the 1992 addition had another leak resulting from the previous night's heavy rainfall. He grabbed his shop vacuum and headed into town.
But when Maj arrived at the church, the situation was much worse than he expected. The frigidly cold and silt-laden water was almost up to his knees and flowing in through the church doors.
Eleven days later, on July 1, entry into central High River was permitted for businesses and non-profit organizations.
Father Edward Hospet, the pastor, along with Maurice Walsh, chair of the parish finance committee, acquired security passes and went to assess the damage to the church.
The water had damaged the pews, in addition to destroying the carpeting and walls. All of the appliances in the church were tossed out, with both the dishwasher and stove contaminated beyond repair, as were the digital piano and organ. Canned goods from the parish's food bank were sanitized and put on high shelves.
"The statue of the Virgin Mary had toppled face first off of her stand and her face was fractured. The raised altar platform had not been breached and the altar table, lectern and tabernacle were not damaged," said Wojcik.
Volunteers from Olds, Didsbury and Sundre went to High River to help clean up after the flood. They brought generators, pressure washers and other tools to swamp out the church.
Soon, volunteers from Calgary came too. An oil well service company donated enough food to feed 30 people. People from all over Alberta prayed for them and sent money.
"It was very gratifying to know that people cared," said Wojcik.
Members of both the Catholic Women's League and Knights of Columbus reclaimed the rectory. They washed it, repaired damages and painted it. With a lot of hard work, it became the new church office, chapel and meeting room.
Wojcik said the parishioners are showing incredible resilience and unity, as they stick together through a difficult time.
A four-person committee was established to raise more money for the renovations. Wojcik was named communications coordinator. Heather Baldwin engaged her family and started a post-flood furniture donation program for flood survivors. Lois Schultz coordinated the parish food bank. J.F. Tetrault headed the information and technology program.
Another group, Outreach 4 High River, was founded on Sept. 12, with the mandate to provide charitable outreach, under the guidance of Calgary Bishop Fred Henry.
The committee was charged with providing support for the disabled, elderly, poor and those who have little or no voice, those likely to fall through the cracks.
The flood leveled the playing field for everyone in town – rich and poor, temporary workers and lifelong residents. Many people in the community, regardless of their personal circumstances beforehand, were now hungry and homeless and confused about how to proceed.
"Outreach 4 High River provides help to augment food security, seasonal clothing and assistance with extraordinary needs," said Wojcik.
Within a month, Outreach 4 High River secured the delivery of a truckload of 20 rooms of motel furniture, as well as 4,000 pounds of food donated by the staff and students of St. Mary's School and John Paul II Collegiate in Okotoks.