Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
September 10, 2001
Immaculate Heart merged
Mayor enters fray, declaring parish should stay open
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON — Parishioners of Immaculate Heart joined the singing as usual, but with less enthusiasm.
They knew of the impending parish merger as soon as their pastor, Spiritan Father John Cunningham, retires but they couldn't believe it would happen.
Cunningham retired Sept. 2, and the last official Mass as a parish was celebrated with Mayor Bill Smith among those in attendance.
The church was full but the pastor was not there to bid his flock goodbye. Spiritan Father William McCormack presided at the celebration because Cunningham was in the hospital.
To honour Cunningham's retirement and 50 years of dedicated service to the community as a priest, Mayor Smith declared Sept. 2 as Father Cunningham Day in Edmonton.
Since Smith became a mayor he has known Cunningham and has a deep affection for the priest.
"He represents what I grew up with as a young boy," said Smith who attends St. Thomas More and St. Joseph Basilica parishes.
"The priests were like father figures, and (Cunningham) certainly represents that," he added.
"Being able to balance teaching of the religion with humour, I think, is a trait of Father Cunningham that is sorely missed today," the mayor said.
Smith went on to criticize the fate of the parish.
"It's a fact of the time. I don't like (parish closures) and I don't accept them," Smith told the WCR about the closure of Immaculate Heart.
"I think we should be pursuing marketing our Christianity and our Catholic religion," Smith said.
"It shouldn't be about closing churches. To me it should be about opening churches," he added.
"As Catholics we have an obligation to spread our faith and if churches are going unused, to me it represents the fact that we haven't done a good job at this," the mayor said.
He thinks that the archdiocese, the people and all Catholics in Edmonton have an obligation and a role to play.
"I believe that we should be stronger in pursuing new people into our faith," he ended.
As with other parishes that were merged, the closure of Immaculate Heart was an emotional issue for many.
Weeks before Cunningham's retirement, a group of parishioners prayed the rosary and recited a novena asking for divine intervention so their parish would stay open. But due to a lack of priests active in ministry, a merger with St. Anthony was inevitable.
"I don't believe that our prayers were for nothing," Margaret Fulkerth, a longtime parishioner since 1958 told the WCR.
"It is not yet answered," she added.
People from around Edmonton and outside the city attend Immaculate Heart.
"Our parishioners desire a traditional Catholic Mass," said Dennis Stansfield. "We cannot find that in other parishes."
By traditional he meant that the congregation kneels during the time of Consecration and after the singing of the Lamb of God.
The layout of the church is traditional itself. Aside from the kneelers, statues of the Sacred Heart, Our Lady of Fatima, St. Joseph and St. Anthony can be found in the sanctuary area of the church.
"Immaculate Heart serves a need," emphasized Stansfield.
Aside from the traditional features of the church, many elderly parishioners wish to be buried in this church, which they built with their own hands, Stansfield said.
The church itself exudes an aura of sacredness, a feeling that Stansfield shares with many parishioners.
Stansfield started attending this parish eight years ago. He experienced a strong sense of belonging when he came to join this parish.
Fulkerth, who kept an archive for the parish, corroborated Stansfield's statement. "We are one big family in this parish," she said.
When she attended bigger churches, she felt like a "speck of dust on the floor," an experience she did not want to happen again.
"My faith in God has not changed and my loyalty to the Catholic Church will not change," Fulkerth said. "But it would be difficult to find another parish with the kind of relationship that we had at Immaculate Heart.
"Not being able to see my friends regularly in the church would be difficult for me," she said.
Brenda Carrier, a convert to Catholicism, said she was greatly wounded.
"I feel there was inadequate consultation with our church members to discuss realistic alternatives to this merger," she said in a letter to Archbishop Thomas Collins.
"I am deeply troubled at the apparent disregard the archdiocese has for our future as Roman Catholics," Carrier said.
Bill Holden moved from Sherwood Park, with his family, closer to the parish more than a year ago.
"There will be a void," Holden said. "We took time to find a church like this and once we are involved and settled, it is closing," Holden said with a sad voice.
In a letter informing the parish about the future of Immaculate Heart, Father Greg Bittman, chancellor, said "the archdiocese is faced with a number of realities which leaves it with no alternative but to merge parishes."
"Merging is necessary to help ensure that all 300,000 Catholics in the archdiocese are provided with an equitable opportunity to participate in the sacramental life of the Church," Bittman said.
"This presents us with a difficult challenge but it is one we need not fear because we know that the Holy Spirit is with us," he said.
In a meeting before the closure, parishioners identified reasons why they were reluctant to attend St. Anthony.
As of Sept. 3, all calls to Immaculate Heart were directed to St. Anthony.
Though officially merged with St. Anthony, Sunday Mass will still be celebrated at Immaculate Heart until Oct. 28. However, Saturday Masses are cancelled.
The November 1998 archdiocesan report Faithful Into the Future announced that Immaculate Heart Parish would be merged with St. Anthony and that the date of the merger would be determined in part by personnel decisions made by the Spiritans.
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