Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 11, 1999
City's oldest church celebrates centennial
By ANH HOANG
WCR Staff Writer
Therese Desjardins and St. Joachim's Church go back a long way.
At 81, she has been attending the downtown parish since she was born.
"I lived in the parking lot of Connelly-McKinley (funeral home)," laughed Desjardins. "I have been coming to St. Joachim since 1918, when I was born."
Desjardins grew up in a house on 100th Avenue and 114th Street, which has been bulldozed, cemented and now serves as a parking lot for the funeral home. It was walking distance to St. Joachim's. It was also close enough for her to hear the church bells, which rang every morning.
The bells use to ring every day at 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. The bell of St. Joachim was the official timepiece for the field workers. It rang a certain way for funerals and weddings. It rang every Sunday morning to wake people up for Mass. The gonging was loud enough to get all the Catholics and Protestants out of bed for church.
Desjardins' history with St. Joachim's is as rich as the history of the 140-year-old parish itself. This year, St. Joachim's Church, the oldest Catholic church in Edmonton, celebrates its 100th anniversary.
Desjardins' father helped build the addition to the church. Desjardins and her husband Paul were also married in St. Joachim's, which is fast becoming known as the wedding church.
"People are coming back here to have their weddings," said Sister Dolorese Dery, the parish administrator. "We have children of parishioners who come back to get married here."
This year, 27 weddings have been celebrated at St. Joachim's.
Back in 1949, when Paul Desjardins came West from his home in Quebec, there was no debate on where he would attend Sunday Mass. He headed straight for St. Joachim's "because it was French."
Frances Lefebvre's husband was an Edmontonian. When the couple moved back to the city from Saskatchewan 50 years ago, there was no question of which church they would attend.
"This was going to be our church," she said.
Having a husband in the military, Claire Bernier was accustomed to army churches. She grimaces a little as she mentions their decor.
"They're just like barracks," she said.
When her family moved to Edmonton in 1967, they went looking for a church. When they came upon St. Joachim's her children became fixated with its stained glass windows.
"We have five children and they all said 'Mom, we want to go to the cathedral,'" said Bernier. "So we went.
"It was such a beautiful church, they thought this was the cathedral."
St. Joachim's was intended to be the cathedral for the Edmonton Archdiocese, said Dery, but it was realized that the building would be too small.
"It was the beginning of the Catholic churches in the city," Dery said of St. Joachim's. "It's not the mother church anymore, but it's the founding church."
Long-time parishioners of St. Joachim talk about their church with pride. They can recite every major event at the church and continue to marvel at its beauty.
From its exterior, St. Joachim's has the architectural appeal of a classical steepled church. When opened, the front doors perfectly frame the white marbled sanctuary. The dark cedar columns on either side of the church stretch upward hovering over the matching wooden pews and give the aura of a cathedral ceiling.
At midday, the richly coloured stained glass windows are detailed by rays of the natural light. In the evening, the windows are equally majestic.
There is a fragrance in the church that seems to have lasted a century. There are those who return to the church and remember its smell.
"It's the wood," said Paul Desjardins.
Those who enter the church can't help but find a certain serenity within its walls.
"It's a place for prayer," said Paul Desjardins. "But you don't have to come here and pray. You can sit and look around and feel like you're in heaven."
Lefebvre added, "This parish always had an attractive feeling to it. Strangers seem to be attracted to it very quickly."
Dery recalls an episode when two young girls came running up the church steps and stopped dead in their tracks when they hit the front door and saw the church's interior.
"They just stood there and said 'Wow!'" Dery said. "I said, 'Yeah, this is the wow church.'"
The church on 110th Street is 100 years old, but St. Joachim Parish was established more than 140 years ago by the famous Oblate missionary, Father Albert Lacombe.
The original church was in Fort Edmonton on the site of today's Alberta Legislative building. It was later moved to a nine-acre plot of land, now home to St. Joachim's Cemetery on 120th Street and 107th Avenue.
This second church was opened in January 1877 under the guidance of its first resident pastor, Father Henri Grandin. A growth spurt hit the city and St. Joachim's had to build a larger church at its current site. That church was later replaced by the present church.
The church, being the only Catholic church in the area at the time, served both the growing French and English populations. Starting in 1901, St. Anthony's and St. Joseph's churches were established and the anglophone parishioners moved to those parishes. Immacul‚e-Conception Parish was established in 1906 to also serve the French community.
By 1925, St. Joachim had become a solely francophone parish.
Parishioners suspect the church was named after the father of the Blessed Mary because the mission at Lac Ste. Anne was named after Mary's mother.
"I guess they wanted to keep it all in the family," Bernier said. "Joachim and Anne, husband and wife. It's a family affair here."
And family best describes St. Joachim, say its parishioners.
"The first day I came in here, I knew this was the place for us," Bernier said. "Everyone was so welcoming."
After Paul and Therese Desjardins were married, they continued to be active members of St. Joachim's because "we got used to coming here and it was home to me."
The parish is now the spiritual home to 260 families, many of whom are senior citizens living in the area. Few families in the parish have young children.
For the past decade, it has not had a resident pastor, but there was always a priest available to celebrate Mass and sacraments for parishioners. Oblate Father Andre Vincelette was recently named the new Sunday vicar.
The parish's lack of a resident pastor and aging population has made its future questionable.
"We always have people coming here," Dery said. "As a community, we are alive and viable."
As with many parishes in the archdiocese, suggestions of merging loom over St. Joachim's.
The 1998 archdiocesan report on parish restructuring calls for St. Joachim to merge with St-Thomas d'Aquin Parish in about 2002. But it also says every effort must be made to keep St. Joachim's building open because of its historic significance and to maintain an active Christian community at St. Joachim's because of the large number of elderly francophones in the neighbourhood.
"The reason we were given for restructuring was because we didn't have youth, there's no future for our church," Dery said. "But our population is renewed every year by people who come back here."
Therese Desjardin added, "I don't feel any fear (of closure). I think we will stay here."
Despite the possibility of a parish merger, history is on St. Joachim's side. The church was declared a historical monument in 1978.
"They can't close that," Paul Desjardins said.
As part of its anniversary celebration, the parish has published its own coffee table style history book.
St. Joachim's anniversary Mass will be celebrated by Father Camille Piche, provincial superior of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Grandin Province, on Oct. 24 at 4 p.m.