Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 21, 2000
Historic church on the move
Okotoks parish forced to build new church and relocate 96-year-old building
By BYRON PRICE
Special to the WCR
Entering Okotoks on the road from Calgary, you come down a long hill into the Sheep River Valley to a set of lights, go over the CPR tracks and then make a quick turn to the right where the historic St. James Catholic Church sits.
Father Jack Bastigal, parish priest since 1994, says the planned widening of the highway has made it necessary to move that church.
"As a parish we will be moving to a new church we will be building. However, we will be taking the old historical St. James Church as a free standing structure."
Bastigal is quick to point out that the older structure of St. James "is a reminder to us all of the efforts of the priests and laity who have gone before us."
St. James was solemnly blessed on July 26, 1903 by Bishop Emile Legal of St. Albert.
Church records tell about the number of baptisms, marriages, deaths and which priests celebrated the Eucharist over the years. What the records don't say is how deeply the faith community cared about its rustic church on the prairies and about the priests who journeyed with them.
But Geraldine Stewart is a living record of the vitality of St. James Parish. She is one of those older people graced with a phenomenal mind for stories and facts.
Geraldine has a deep passion for St. James Parish of which she has been an active member since she moved to Okotoks in 1942. Many events in Geraldine's life are tied to St. James.
As is true of many historic buildings in Canada, St. James was built close to the CPR tracks. Trains still go by clinging and clanging as the old building shakes like a wooden roller coaster.
The train and the church are very significant in Geraldine's life. She tells a story about going to see her husband-to-be for supper in Black Diamond, 20 miles down the road from Okotoks.
After supper she was anxious to get back home to Okotoks because her mother would be worried. So, they started to walk and after six miles an oil truck stopped and gave them a drive.
The next day, Geraldine and her mother went to Mass at St. James. Geraldine recalls: "After Mass I stayed longer and my mother started to walk home alone. She was deaf and did not hear the train. She was hit and killed."
Geraldine tells how she and the priest ran to her mother who was given the Last Rites a few metres from the church.
You see the pain in Geraldine's eyes but she gathers her thoughts quickly and recalls that she was married in St. James. Her children went to Mass, served Mass and developed their faith in St. James. She and her husband lit the fires in St. James for many years on those cold Alberta days.
Geraldine has a deep love of history and the priests and laity who worked hard when times were tough to help the parish grow in God's love.
As Geraldine talks about the historic St. James Church, the history and the people of the past are rendered present. "Do you see that patch on the wall? That is where the old stovepipe came through to heat the church."
She recalls how women used to ride up on horseback with their boots and go to Mass.
Geraldine takes you on a journey talking about the priests and the laity whose names and stories flow like the Sheep River that flows through the town. One is struck by the gentleness of the words she uses - gracious, respectful, generous - which come easily and rhythmically from this lady who is an accomplished painter and writer.
Geraldine focuses on the wooden altar built by the first resident priest, Oblate Father Dubois (1905-1916): "It is a beautiful altar. Now a lot of people may call it rustic, or whatever, but he built that altar from pieces of wood, old apple crates and orange crates, inlaid the pieces and painted it beautifully."
She then glances at the old flooring of the centre aisle: "The floor cost $100 which meant an awful amount of work for the CWL in those days." She smiles, "Be careful when you walk on it."
Geraldine recalls that in 1960, the American politician Bobby Kennedy and his family came to Mass at their small church. "He had the deepest blue eyes and made sure he shook hands with everyone at the church that day, including every child. When he died, it affected a lot of us at the parish deeply."
She also recalls how Father Patrick Peyton and his famous Rosary Crusade came to their tiny hamlet.
Geraldine tells many stories that show that the congregation appreciates the priests from the Oblates and the Calgary Diocese who have served St. James Parish and have helped their children develop their faith over the years.
Today, Geraldine is a member of the building committee for the new St. James Church: "We are taking this building and the memories of the priests and laity who gave so unselfishly of their lives to make St. James and Okotoks one of best places in the world to live according to the United Nations.
"In this building we have a pictorial representation of how it was and where are roots are solid. This is not just a truth, it is our truth."