Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
July 16, 2001
Southern Alberta parishes close their doors
Parishioners, bishop heartsick over loss of churches
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
CALGARY — Irene Stefan never expected to attend the closure of the Roman Catholic church in Calgary to which she devoted half her life.
"The church retired from me instead of me retiring from the church," said Stefan, 86, a stalwart volunteer who attended St. John the Evangelist Church in Hillhurst in the northwest inner city for 41 years.
The final Mass was celebrated at St. John's at 12:30 p.m. on July 8, the most recent of a series of church closures in the Diocese of Calgary. The closures follow a major restructuring that saw the consolidation of many churches, missions and parishes across southern Alberta.
Under the restructuring, St. John's, closed with parishioners moving over to St. Bernard's in Parkdale, a few kilometres west. Our Lady of Assumption in Bowness, another area church due west of St. Bernard's, becomes a mission church.
For almost 25 years, Stefan was the volunteer sacristan, caring for the altar and its linens at St. John's. Dressed in her best Sunday finery, Stefan listened to the pastor in his closing comments pay tribute to her for her generous service.
Even after Stefan moved out of the parish three years ago, she returned weekly to St. John's. She did so, in part, because the pastor asked her to continue due to a shortage of parish volunteers.
"We've got to look ahead," said Stefan, as she folded linen and tucked it into a drawer one last time. "I'm really going to miss it but I will have to adjust myself."
Such was the stoic attitude adopted by many of the senior parishioners who expected they would live out their lives and be buried there. Privately, however, considerable pain and anger was evident in some quarters. It was simply not for public consumption.
Plans for the church began in 1930. But only the basement was finished before the Depression stopped construction in 1931. Parishioners worshipped below ground until the upper part of the 500-seat church was completed in 1954.
It quickly became a landmark in the area, with its simple neo-gothic facade, strong brick exterior and a circular stained-glass window fashioned in France depicting St. John, which overlooked parishioners from the rear of the choir loft.
Ten years ago, St. John's became one of the first parishes in the diocese to undergo an amalgamation, bringing it, along with St. Bernard's and Assumption, together into one parish.
Today the church's fate is unknown, Bishop Frederick Henry told about 200 people who attended the closing Mass. It's unlikely to remain as a church since parking around the building in the dense residential/commercial neighborhood is abysmal.
Instead, it will probably see the wrecking ball. The diocese has talked with developers about the prime piece of property located in what has become a gentrified section of the city.
He assured them that all the revenues would remain in the parish for use at some future date, perhaps for the construction of a new church elsewhere in the parish.
If it was painful for the parishioners, it seemed equally difficult for the bishop, who is looking more stooped from riding the circuit since the beginning of the year closing churches around southern Alberta.
More than two dozen churches are shutting their doors permanently across the diocese. Two weeks earlier, Henry officiated at the last Mass for St. Francis Xavier in Crossfield, a pioneer prairie church north of Calgary.
Although the rural closing was more elaborate with a recitation of church history, a display of church artifacts, and a banquet for 180 in the community hall, the mood was strikingly similar.
Both at St. John's and St. Francis, Henry explained that on June 24, the feast of the birth of St. John the Baptist, he celebrated the 15th anniversary of his ordination as bishop.
Henry recounted how, that morning just before driving out to Crossfield to close the church, he reflected in prayer about his call from the Holy Father to become a bishop.
Had he known then that little more than a decade later he'd be called to Calgary to oversee a major restructuring that would lead to church closures, Henry confessed he might have refused the call: "Lord, you better find someone else. My heart is not up to this."
In fact, Henry advised his fellow bishops that if they want to be popular, don't follow in his path. If they want to do the right thing to ensure a successful future for the church, however, then he counsels them to look at what they are doing and how they can do it better. "It will be painful and it could lead to change," he says.
Henry described how much the Catholic Church has changed since he was ordained a priest 33 years ago. For a priest the demands are greater, expectations higher, stresses and strains more numerous. Two Calgary priests are on sick leave due to stress, he said.
There are fewer clergy while the diocese continues to grow and the demographics continue to shift. He cited the example of St. Albert the Great Parish in Calgary's Mackenzie Lake, a new subdivision. It meets in two school gymnasiums. It has more people in attendance than the combined membership of five Calgary inner city churches.
When St. Albert's new church is constructed, it will seat 1,200 to 1,500 people.
In contrast, while St. John's was financially and structurally viable, most of its members lived outside the parish boundaries and there were insufficient volunteers for the church to function properly.
While he advises clergy to work smarter, not harder, Henry tells the laity that lay formation and leadership are more important than ever.
As in all the closures, he walked around the church to significant stations - the baptismal font, confessional/reconciliation room, the Stations of the Cross, the lectern and the altar, urging members to remember the past.
Then as a closing gesture everyone was invited to file up the centre aisle to reverence the altar with a bow, a kiss, a touch, a genuflection.
"When we walk together, the pain and the burden is much lighter," Henry said. "All through the ups and downs and the turmoil, we're called to embrace the future."
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