Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 30, 2003
A stately centre of local Church
St. Joseph's Basilica celebrates it's 40th anniversary
By RENATO GANDIA
WCR Staff Writer
St. Joseph's Basilica is one stately landmark that is hard to miss.
For the people of the Archdiocese of Edmonton it is the hub connecting different parishes because the seat of the archdiocese resides here.
It is a symbol of faith, authority and permanence. But apart from its significance within the structure of this local Church, the basilica oozes with tradition and devotion, stories and history.
St. Joseph, which seats 1,100 people, is one of the two minor basilicas in Western Canada - the other is in the St. Boniface Archdiocese in Winnipeg.
Before Pope John Paul visited Edmonton in 1984, the then-St. Joseph's Cathedral was named a minor basilica partly because of the papal visit as well as in recognition of the missionaries and pioneers who came to the Edmonton area bringing about growth in people's faith.
Though sometimes people complain it is difficult to find parking, Sunday Masses at the basilica are almost always packed because of its beautiful liturgies.
On weekdays this is the only church in the city where Mass is celebrated twice. It welcomes two sets of worshippers. At noon it welcomes people, some of them on their lunch break from work, to take a pause and pray. Towards the end of the day at 5:30 p.m. it becomes a refuge for souls wanting to thank and praise God for another day.
Before the afternoon daily Mass, the people communally recite and meditate on the mysteries of the rosary while the basilica priests wait at the confessionals for repentant souls.
Associate pastor, Father Joselito Cantal takes joy in celebrating the sacrament of Reconciliation with people. "This ministry is one way that we can deeply touch people's lives," he said.
Archbishop Thomas Collins leads a regular vespers and Lectio Divina, prayerful reading of the Bible.
Every Friday there is a holy hour and on first Fridays people gather for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The basilica is also one of the few churches in Edmonton - perhaps the only one - that still rings its bell for the Angelus.
Upon entering into the church one can never fail to notice more than 60 stained glass windows, depicting the rich heritage of the Old and the New Testament as well as its connection to St. Albert, the first diocese in Alberta and forerunner of the present archdiocese.
For almost three decades the basilica was known as the church without locks. It was open 24 hours providing a sacred space for worship and quiet prayers while its pews gave refuge to the tired bodies of homeless people.
However in the early 1980s, the church without locks had to close at night. The number of people attending perpetual adoration declined while on the morning of Feb. 28, 1980 an arsonist set the altar and crucifix on fire, causing smoke and water damage to the whole building.
It was the darkest hour in its history. To remove soot and smell, all the stones inside the church had to be scrubbed. Its prized possession, the Casavant Brothers organ, was sent to Quebec for cleaning and repairs. Clean up and repair costs reached $250,000.
It also had its share of fame when parishioners shrugged off the controversy and international publicity surrounding the wedding of hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky to actress Janet Jones, both non-Catholics.
About a hundred people objected to the ceremony being held at the basilica but many more applauded the Church's openness. In a story written by then-WCR editor Frank Dolphin, Father Mike McCaffery was quoted, "I received about 2,000 calls and letters in favour."
Being the seat of the archdiocese this is the church of the archbishop. Since its completion and dedication in 1963 it has seen the service and leadership of three archbishops including the late Archbishop Anthony Jordan, retired Archbishop Joseph MacNeil and presently, Archbishop Thomas Collins.
In its early years, the cathedral parish was an unofficial training ground for the Canadian hierarchy. Three former rectors and an associate pastor became bishops: Msgr. James McGuigan was named archbishop of Regina, later archbishop of Toronto and Canada's first English-speaking cardinal; Msgr. C.J. Nelligan became bishop of Pembroke, Ont.; Father Edward Jennings, auxiliary bishop of Vancouver, later of Fort William, Ont.; Msgr. Michael O'Neill, archbishop of Regina, and Father Emmett Doyle, bishop of Nelson.
Father Len Gartner took over as rector of the basilica in July 2001. The last time he served at St. Joseph's was in the mid-1960s when he was just one year fresh out of the seminary.
When he was asked to return to St. Joseph's, Gartner remembers feeling "nervous, afraid perhaps of not being able to provide the needed leadership of such a large parish."
"We couldn't believe that our cathedral was going up in smoke."
- Frances Cover
"You worry about that. But I was excited to be coming home. . . . I was honoured and pleased they would consider my gift back here again," he told the WCR more than a year ago.
The parish remains a training ground but now not only for the clergy but for lay leaders as well. Its RCIA program is known in Western Canada. Sister Annata Brockman's expertise in welcoming new Catholics to the Church is sought and admired by many.
Because of the primacy of this church in the archdiocese, events like the Chrism Mass and Rite of Election are annually held, with representatives from different parishes in attendance.
It has also witnessed many ordinations of priests, weddings, baptisms, funerals and other celebrations.
Daisy Wilson's two sons and two daughters were all baptized at this church.
A member of the Catholic Women's League, she has always been involved in the parish life. "It is like my second home," she told the WCR.
Frances Cover, 93, was baptized at St. Joachim Church, built in 1891, but she is one of St. Joseph's oldest parishioners.
In 1917, St. Joseph's Parish came into being by a separation of the English and the French parishioners of St. Joachim.
"I worked in the church all my life," Cover said. "We've been blessed with good clergy all the time and we're lucky to have a good administration."
She worked at the sacristy, keeping the altar and looking after the place. Cover still remembers the fire in 1980. "We were so flabbergasted. We couldn't believe that our cathedral was going up in smoke."
In 1924, Archbishop Henry O'Leary designated St. Joseph to be the cathedral of the diocese. But before it became the church that it is, in 1925 it was a basement church. Although a crypt church, it was still the largest church in Edmonton.
The people's dream of constructing a cathedral, like the ones in Europe with magnificent spires, was delayed for 35 years. That was due to the Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War.
After a long journey, struggle and hardships, on May 1, 1963, the new cathedral was consecrated. On June 28-29, the community will celebrate the 40th anniversary of its consecration.