Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
June 4, 2001
Ecumenism in Grande Cache
Depopulation spurs local churches to find ways to work together
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
GRANDE CACHE — Truckers on the Big Horn highway like to pick up speed when they approach the steep incline that leads into Grande Cache. At 4,200 feet above sea level it is, as the local priest jokes, the town in the Edmonton Archdiocese closest to heaven.
It seems a little bit like heaven too, tucked up against the magnificent Rocky Mountains, with air so pure and sweet you learn to breathe all over again, rivers that swim with fish, forests that brim with birds and beasts, all under a sky often coloured thick and wild in the evening with the setting of the sun.
But Grande Cache is very much of the earth. The town, about 450 km northwest of Edmonton, is a "planned" community, its growth implemented in phases to support the industry which sprang into life to mine the coal that is layered so deep and rich in the surrounding ground if often bursts through the surface.
The town unfolds with a comforting symmetry, but the demand for coal eludes the designer's grasp. When Smoky River Coal finally closed its mine completely in the spring of 2000, some 400 jobs were lost. At the height of its boom, Grande Cache's population was 7,000; that has now dwindled to an estimated 3,500.
When the mine closed, the Lutheran and United Church congregations lost their pastors. But mercifully, the Catholics actually gained a priest, a decision Father Isagani Avinante credits to the prudence of Archbishop Joseph MacNeil.
Father Gani, as his parishioners call him, arrived in Grande Cache in July 1999. He had been in Canada about five years at that point, on loan from the Diocese of Imus, Philippines.
"If the Catholics had no resident priest, it would be a real blow to the whole community. . . . People would be demoralized," Father Gani said.
In the midst of the uncertainty, the churches of Grande Cache recently took steps to work together. Meeting at the Grande Cache Correctional Institute, representatives of the Lutheran, Full Gospel, Alliance, United and the Church of the Nazarene discussed how they could live out the call "that may all be one, even as thou, Father in me and I in thee, that they also be one in us, that the world may believe that thou hast sent me."
Father Gani proposed three areas where the churches could unite behind a common purpose: a program to strengthen families; working to protect, uphold and enhance life; and a program for youth.
Holding an ecumenical event twice a year was also contemplated, and as Easter high holy days were approaching, Father Gani invited his fellow Christians to join Catholics in their Good Friday Way of the Cross.
More boldly, he also invited them to attend Mass on Holy Thursday and take part in the washing of the feet. His invitations were accepted.
Last year was the first time Father Gani and his parishioners publicly marked the 14 Stations of the Cross on Good Friday by walking 13 kms from Susa Creek, a Cree reserve and mission to the south, to Holy Cross Church in Grande Cache.
This year, each of the participating churches were responsible for writing reflections for a certain number of stations, some of which, it was noticed, do not have biblical references. That is true, Father Gani responded, but they are still "logical to the event. They contain nothing contrary to faith. They can help us enter into the mystery of the Passion."
This was the experience of Brad Schellenberg, pastor of Pineview Alliance, who walked the Way of the Cross with eight members of his congregation. Because of the heavy snowfalls, the route was abbreviated to six kms on the highway, then the pilgrims progressed from church to church within the town.
"Personally, I saw it as an excellent way to portray what Christ did in walking to Calvary," Schellenberg told the WCR. "No one was talking; you had time to think back to how that must have been for him."
Uniting for this event, Schellenberg said, "brought back the centrality of Jesus Christ, what we have in Jesus Christ and . . . in and through him . . . we are all agreed that Christ is the Lamb of God, our risen and ascended Lord."
Bill Reynolds, the Lutheran participant, took part in the washing of the feet at Holy Thursday Mass and observed, "It was a humbling experience."
Brian Harder, chaplain at the Grande Cache jail and an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene, had the "privilege of washing (Father Gani's) feet" on Holy Thursday. It was "for me, the most significant part" of the whole evening. "It was an act of humility on both our parts, an act of respect," he said.
Before the final prayer, all Protestant leaders, which included Bill Reynolds, Brian Harder, and Cliff Newberry, pastor of the Pentecostal Full Gospel Fellowship, and the youth minister from that congregation, were asked to "line up before the altar and offer a prayer of blessing for us," Father Gani related.
On Easter Sunday, Father Gani left Grande Cache to walk the Appalachian Trail, a 10-month journey to mark his 25th year of ordination to the priesthood.
What will become of the nascent ecumenical efforts in Grande Cache? Those asked were committed to continuing.
And as Brian Harder observed, it's key that the participation is "outward, physical, visible. . . . It speaks volumes to the people of the community to see the leadership willing to work together."
"We just have to move from opportunity to opportunity. It isn't really where there's a course laid out," said Bill Reynolds.
Therein lies the rub. The churches have shown a willingness to provide a visible witness to Christ in this town whose fortunes rise and fall with the demand for coal. Yet, they still remain separated on vital points of faith - a fact that no one intended to trivialize.
"I make a distinction between compromise and accommodation," Father Gani said. While the former is unacceptable, the latter allows "despite serious differences we will be able to work together."
The heart of the matter, though, was that some of his separated brothers attended Mass, the source and summit of the Catholic faith, on Holy Thursday.
"I believe in the inherent power of the Eucharist," Father Gani said. "The seed has been planted. They have shown openness. Jesus will have his way."
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