Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 11, 2004
St. Francis' bittersweet 95th
Parishioners still plead to keep their loved parish open
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
They celebrated with Mass, food and wine but the mood of the congregation was gloomy at the Oct. 1 Mass and banquet marking St. Francis of Assisi Parish's 95th anniversary. Some referred to the banquet as their last supper.
"I'm really sad," parishioner Toni Maloney said following the 5:30 p.m. anniversary Mass. "It took me an effort not to cry."
While rejoicing at the parish accomplishments, Maloney, a parishioner for 35 years, could not stand the thought that this would be the last parish anniversary she would ever take part in. Even though nobody brought it up at the Mass or the banquet, it is no secret that St. Francis Parish will close at the end of June next year.
The Franciscan Friars, who founded the parish in 1909 and have operated it ever since, are withdrawing from the parish because they don't have manpower to continue. The archdiocese doesn't have a priest to appoint at St. Francis either.
"I know that this will be the last time we will have this kind of a celebration here," Maloney lamented. "It'll be the last time we get to celebrate the feast of St. Francis with the Franciscan priests here on Monday (Oct. 4)."
Parishioner Rita McCrary finds it difficult to believe the parish will close. "How can they close this parish when the church is full every Sunday at every Mass?" she asked. "You tell me because I don't understand."
Meet with archbishop
Maloney and McCray are "quite certain" the parish will close as scheduled "unless a miracle happens." They are hoping for such a miracle at the end of October when Archbishop Thomas Collins meets with the parish to discuss the situation.
"I guess we have been very fortunate here because it has been the spirit of the Franciscans that has permeated this parish for 95 years and therefore I think it's made it a very strong parish," Maloney said.
Some 200 people attended the Mass and 400 attended the banquet at the Northgate Lions Recreation Hall.
"I feel heartbroken," said Elvina Skoreiko, a mother of eight and a parishioner since 1943. All her children were baptized, confirmed and married at St. Francis. "I feel I belong here," she said. "If they close it, I'll be hard hit. I'm praying it won't close."
But it will close on June 30, confirmed Father Dennis Vavrek, the current pastor. "That's the plan; unless something extraordinary happens, (the parish) is closing," he said."That's why we celebrated the 95th anniversary. It's unusual to celebrate your 95th anniversary but we are not going to make it to 100."
How does Vavrek feel about it? "Not very good," he said. "I wasn't ordained to close parishes. I was ordained to build the community of faith, not to pull the plug on it."
Vavrek described the 500-family parish as a large, active parish with many programs and great lay involvement. "If it was a dying parish maybe I would feel more at ease about the whole thing. But it's not dying."
However, throughout the Mass and the banquet, Vavrek kept trying to give a positive spin to the celebration by focusing on 95 years of positive history. A slide show of the parish history brought both laughter and tears.
"I feel terrible (about the closing) because that church has been through three fires and has always survived," said Adrienne Tougas, a parishioner for 50 years. "I was in the choir the second time it burned."
She also ran a Cub Pack at the parish for 18 years in the 1960s and her two sons were baptized, confirmed and married at the church.
"Our hearts are broken," Tougas said as she caressed the golden jubilee medal her mother got in 1959 for the parish jubilee. "I cried when Father Dennis mentioned to us that the parish may close. I want to know what is happening to our churches. It seems so unfair."
Doreen Porret, a St. Francis parishioner since 1966, looked clearly sad at the banquet and didn't mince words when asked about the closing. "I hate it," she said. "I think it's terrible. This parish is a big, happy family and to see it go this way is very, very sad."
Porret would settle for any priest if that means the parish will remain open. "It doesn't have to be a Franciscan," she said. "Any other priest that is willing to take us on would be quite welcome."
Porret plans to attend the parish meeting with the archbishop Oct. 31. What will she tell him? "I'll tell him that I'm not happy. But I'm sure nothing that I say will change his mind. I think this is a done deal."
Michelle Poitras, 35, said "We are a well grounded parish, we do a lot for the community, we have a very strong volunteer base and it'll be easy for us to fit into other parishes. It's going to be hard at first but we all need to find our niche."
Poitras, a parishioner for 10 years, tried to persuade the archbishop to spare St. Francis in a letter but didn't get a positive response.
"I wish they would have considered keeping the building and the land. We have three beautifully treed acres of property, it's very easy to access and there is ample parking at the building. I would have preferred myself to see the church stay and some of the other smaller parishes in the north end could have amalgamated into St. Francis."
Poitras is part of a group that will run a Lenten mission next year to prepare parishioners for the transition. She plans to go to St. Charles Parish following the closing of St. Francis.
According to parish pastoral council chair Jim Maloney, husband of Toni Maloney, most parishioners still don't know where they will attend, although he said the archbishop has recommended they go to St. Alphonsus Parish.
"What I don't understand is why is he sending us to St. Alphonsus when there is no parking there," he said. "Our parish is all renovated, we have ample parking, a new sound system and lots of money in the bank."
The story of St. Francis Parish began when the Franciscan Friars came west in 1908, arriving in Lamoureux, which was their centre for missionary work until late 1909.
The first Mass to be celebrated in the area that is now St. Francis Parish was held in November 1908 by Father Arthur Rappard at a lumber and building supplies building on 128th Avenue and 66th Street.
Father Boniface Heidmeiwe arrived in 1909 to take over the Packing Plant Mission, so named because of the newly established Swift's plant in the area. He celebrated Mass there twice - in the old log firehall of the Swift's packing plant.
The Franciscans then decided to establish their headquarters in north Edmonton and soon the construction of a church and friary was underway. The first Mass in the little chapel took place in the summer of 1909.
In 1911 the Franciscans decided to build a full-sized church. It was built on the east side of the friary and, even though it was not completed, Mass was held on Christmas that year. It was also at this time that Father Xavier-Marie opened the first Catholic school in the parish.
On Nov. 20, 1915 the first fire struck and the new church was severely damaged. It wasn't until June 1916 that the church was restored. During the next few years artwork was added to the church, the Franciscan college was opened, a gymnasium built, parish hall constructed and parishioners continued to turn out in great numbers to participate in parish life.
Tragedy struck again on Christmas Eve 1934. This time the friary was completely destroyed by fire. The parish then acquired a Casavant pipe organ that was blessed in December 1944. But again fire took its toll and on March 11, 1947, fire totally consumed the church-organ, artwork and all.
Parishioners quickly went to work and by 1949 had erected a basement church. However, Mass would not be celebrated in the new church until 1961. From 1961 to 1970 the parish experienced rapid growth.
In 1966-67, the parish had 1,000 families with an average Sunday attendance of 2,000 people. There were 220 baptisms annually compared to 14 baptisms this year. The number of marriages was 40 compared with seven in 2004.
Over the years the parish has had many groups including a men's club, Catholic Women's League, a social club and Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Today St. Francis is a major food bank distribution centre, distributing 70 to 80 food hampers a week.
The parish also opens its doors to other groups.
"So much has happened in the past 95 years," noted Vavrek. "Weekday and Sunday Mass, baptisms, first Eucharists, first reconciliations, confirmations, weddings, funerals, parties and socials and suppers. So many rich memories. We celebrate all these memories this evening."