Last Updated: Wednesday - 01/05/2011
October 22, 2001
Rocky parish celebrates 75 years
Parish origins traced to a gift from Ottawa priest
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
ROCKY MOUNTAIN HOUSE — St. Matthew Parish, currently celebrating its 75th anniversary, owes its existence and name partially to Ottawa priest Father Matthew Whelan and the Catholic Women's League of Ottawa-Hull.
Whelan, who had served as chaplain of the CWL, had donated $500 to the league to build a church. His condition was that it be named and blessed in honour of St. Matthew.
The CWL turned the money over to the Catholic Church Extension Society which in 1925 forwarded it to Archbishop Henry Joseph O'Leary of Edmonton.
O'Leary further forwarded the donation to Father Joseph MacDonald, pastor at Red Deer who administered the Catholic Western Missions. MacDonald selected Rocky Mountain House as the site for a new church.
At a July 1, 1925 meeting of Catholics interested in building a church in Rocky, MacDonald and another priest, Father Macmillan, brought $1,000, including the $500 cheque from Whelan.
On land donated by Mr. Driscoll, a prominent town businessman, the first church at Rocky Mountain House, with a seating capacity for 100 people, was built. On Aug. 27, 1926, O'Leary blessed and dedicated it to St. Matthew.
The present church, with a seating capacity for 300, was built in 1976 at a cost of $225,000.
On Oct. 12, St. Matthew Parish marked 75 years of Catholic presence in Rocky Mountain House with a heritage Mass, where the history of the parish was recalled.
Archbishop Thomas Collins celebrated the Mass with former pastors, religious and parishioners. A banquet followed. The following day, a plaque was dedicated to all the priests and religious communities who have served in the parish.
"In the spirit of gratitude to God and all people, we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the presence of the Roman Catholic Church in Rocky Mountain House," writes Father Andrzej Bogdanowicz, St. Matthew's pastor for the past two years. "We do it in unity with the pope, St. Peter's successor and the bishops united with him, and all our brothers and sisters in Christian faith."
Over the past 75 years, the parish has blossomed far beyond what it used to be. And so has the oil-rich town of Rocky, whose population has almost tripled in the past 40 years to a total of 6,500.
Steady growth has turned St. Matthew, which also serves the adjacent communities of Evergreen and Caroline, into a vibrant parish of nearly 300 families with numerous programs to meet the needs of its diverse congregation.
Parishioners and their pastor describe it as caring and welcoming, with people serving in a variety of ministries including liturgy, music, education, pastoral care, youth and social justice.
"This is a very caring parish; people help in any way they can," notes Eddy Sehn, a parish musician who chaired the committee that built the present church. "Everybody helped to raise funds to pay for the church and then for the new school."
Added Sehn, a welder, building contractor and farmer: "This parish is a nice place to be and I don't want to go anywhere else."
According to Connie Lecerf, a parishioner and CWL member since 1960, St. Matthew's has "always been a very vibrant parish" noted for its lay participation and spirit of cooperation. "This is just a great Catholic community."
Ernie Murias, district deputy of the Knights of Columbus, praises St. Matthew's for its hospitality, saying parishioners go out of their way to make people feel at home.
"It's a very hospitable parish, I love it and I think it's the best," he said. "People really care about being part of this parish."
Sylvia Pedrazzini, chair of the pastoral council, said the main characteristic of St. Matthew is its spirit of unity and cooperation. "When there is something to be done, we go out and get it done," she said. "We have people who take Communion to the sick and assist those who are dying."
Pat McDonald, chair of the 75th anniversary committee and former principal of St. Matthew School, describes the parish as a "very cohesive" community where everybody is willing to pitch in. "You can always find people willing to help. I have always felt this is a unique parish."
It's also a young parish with "lots of young people and lots of children, Murias said. "We have a youth choir with about 40 members."
Even though the parish is 75, Catholic missionary activity in the area began well over 150 years ago. The first Catholic Mass in the area and probably in Alberta was said in October 1845 at the Hudson Bay post at Rocky by Father Smet, a Jesuit who was on his way to the Pacific Ocean.
The legendary Oblate Father Albert Lacombe also celebrated Mass at Rocky on at least two occasions, the last one in 1870. After the closure of the trading posts in 1875, all was silent and it was not until the early 1900s, with the coming of settlers and the railroad, that the Catholic Church began to take root.
In the winter of 1912 Father Henry Voisin of Red Deer arrived in Rocky to celebrate Mass. He also celebrated a Mass during Lent 1913. The visits, though intermittent, brought comfort to the Catholics along the railroad route.
For the next 14 years, Mass was celebrated whenever and wherever including saddlery shops, halls and restaurants. A number of Catholics who were then living in the Rocky Mountain House area began pushing for a permanent home to practise their faith. Their efforts paid off in 1926, when the first church was built.
From that date three priests from Red Deer - Fathers MacDonald, Rupert O'Neill and Joseph Sullivan - came to Rocky regularly to care for the spiritual needs of the community.
The parish had no resident priest in the early days but that didn't slow it down. Catechism classes were well organized and every year members of the Daughters of Wisdom and Sisters of St. Joseph of London would travel from Edmonton for a two-week stay to conduct these classes.
In the mid-1980s the sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame arrived in Rocky at the invitation of Father Matt Kueffler.
In 1976 construction began on the present church. Archbishop Joseph MacNeil blessed it on Sept. 6, 1977.
The Catholic Women's League, a major player in the community and religious activities in Rocky, was organized in March of 1960 and has 32 members. The Knights of Columbus was organized in the fall of 1977 and today has 60 active members.
In 1979 a Catholic school began in Rocky Mountain House with first classes in the basement of the church. In 1980 the construction of a Catholic school became a reality and has continued to grow into a kindergarten to Grade 12 school with nearly 600 students.
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