Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 29, 1999
Losing a Catholic presence
Neighbourhood learns parish to disappear, then report recommends school close too
By LELLA BLUMER
Special to the WCR
Three months after learning their church will close, members of St. James Parish were hit with the news that their school may face the same fate.
Now, they're trying to come to terms with what the changes will mean for this close-knit community in southeast Edmonton.
"A lot of the people we go to church with, we go to school with," says Shannon Schooler, who has two children at St. James School. The parish community is invited to many of the school functions, and the relationship between the two is strong, she says.
"Before the family dances, we have a Mass at the church, and then we all walk across the field to the school.
"When the church closes, those people will all go in different directions."
The Transformation of Parishes (ToPs) report, released last November, recommended St. James be merged into Assumption Parish in the Strathearn area. That combined parish may be further amalgamated with St. Michael-Resurrection Parish.
In February, a consultants' report released by the Edmonton Catholic school board recommended closing St. James School near the church.
A follow-up report by the school board steered clear of saying the school should close, but suggested four schools in southeast Edmonton, including St. James, be combined into three. Schooler says the school is taking a long hard look at its options.
"I'm still kind of hopeful about the school, because the school council and the family of schools council are really trying to find different soutions, and people are trying to look at it more optimistically," she says.
Still, there are fears enrollment at St. James may drop in September because people have heard the school is closing.
Angus Perry is chair of the pastoral council at St. James. He has also been the principal of a small rural school and knows how rumours of a school closing can affect the community.
"You're attached to that particular group of people, and reorganization means breaking apart that particular group. You feel like a hole has been shot through you."
But Perry says he has also learned that maintaining a Catholic presence in a community isn't solely dependent on having buildings in which to worship and go to school.
The Church is present in the classroom because of the leadership of teachers and parents, Perry says.
"If the teachers were not there inspiring the kids, and the parents were not there to confirm what the teacher says is important, the message would not get through.
"In the community at large, the Church is present in people, in a community of people, and not just in a building. On the surface, we identify with a building, but underneath, we are identifying with people, with the quality of that community of people we have met over the years."
While it would be ideal for that community to be small, it may not be realistic, adds Perry's wife Carolee, whose parents helped start the parish.
"It's how involved people become that makes a community," says Carolee.
Angus adds "Do you say a place is small enough if you get to know everyone, or is it the quality of people who make the effort to reach out and meet us, whether that's in a crowd of hundreds or of thousands?
"Whatever it is that is so valuable about small parishes has to be carried forward, and it has to be carried forward through people."
But Schooler says the new parish will be less personal because it is larger.
"Now, we can walk to church, and I know that's something not everyone can do. We meet people on the way, stop and talk to them after church, and walk back home together."
She worries that moving the parish further from the community will mean fewer people will be able to attend, especially elderly people who don't have easy access to transportation.
She also fears parents will opt to send their children to a public school close to home, rather than drive or bus them to a Catholic school.
The Perrys agree it will take more effort by parents and families to attend a church and a school that are less convenient for them. But they use the example of the Suzuki charter school in the nearby Ottewell neighbourhood, which draws enrollment from across Edmonton.
"If people can drive across the city for a music education, wouldn't they do that for a religious education?" Carolee says.
"I think there will be people who say the faith community is important and the education of my children is important, so I'm going to make that effort."
While St. James Parish has already begun planning for the transition to a new parish, Angus says it's important to allow time for parishioners to grieve.
"There are people whose hearts are saying 'We've been here all our lives and now there's one more thing gone out of our community.'
"There is a real need for others to understand what people who are really grieiving are going through. If every time they address the issue, they are told to 'move along,' they won't be dealing honestly with their grief.
"The idea of 'getting on with life' means more than going to a new building and getting together the way we've always done. If that's all that comes out of it, I will be very disappointed."