Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of July 4, 2005
Tearful farewell to St. Francis
Parishioners lament closure of beloved northside parish
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
After 96 years of service to the faithful in northeast Edmonton, St. Francis of Assisi Parish closed its doors for the last time June 26.
"St. Francis of Assisi is now closed," an emotional Franciscan Father Dennis Vavrek declared following the last Mass at the church at 67th Street and 129th Avenue.
An estimated 1,200 people gathered at the church for the closing Mass and the picnic that followed. Those who didn't fit in the church and the balcony watched the Mass on a big screen TV in the basement.
"Welcome to this very historical day - the last Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Parish," Vavrek, 48, told the congregation. "Let us give thanks today for the 96 years St. Francis of Assisi Parish has served this community." Nine former pastors assisted Vavrek at the Mass.
Lack of priests
The 550-family parish closed because there are no priests to keep it going. The Franciscans Friars, who founded the parish in 1909 and operated it ever since, announced more than a year ago they were selling their friary beside the church and withdrawing from the parish because they didn't have anybody to replace Vavrek who is taking a year's sabbatical.
The three-storey red brick friary and the church had become too much to handle for an order with few priests and brothers.
Parishioners were hoping the Edmonton Archdiocese would come up with a priest for their parish. That didn't happen. In October Archbishop Thomas Collins told parishioners the archdiocese couldn't replace Vavrek either and announced the closure and sale of the church.
"This parish community has been for many years a place of prayer, of service and celebration. (It is filled with) so many rich and gratifying memories; unfortunately, it all comes to an end today," Vavrek said at the Mass.
"I have served here for two terms. My years here have been very special and I cherish them. It's not the building that I am going to miss; it is you, the people of God, that I am going to miss."
Vavrek, who served at St. Francis from 1987 to 1993 before returning for the last four years, thanked the parishioners for having made St. Francis "a living witness to Gospel fidelity."
"Thank you for your generosity. I cannot end this homily without saying how grateful the Franciscans are to all of you for how generous you have been to all of us over the years."
The first Franciscans arrived in northeast Edmonton on June 2, 1909 to serve the population around the meatpacking plants along Fort Road. "They would have starved to death if it had not been for the generosity of the manager of the Transit Hotel, Jim Ryan," Vavrek noted.
The priest pronounced the parish closed at 1:07 p.m. and invited the congregation to make a final gesture. Immediately hundreds of parishioners streamed to the centre aisle to kiss the altar.
"This is really sad; we are going to miss a lot of people," Marie de la Salle and her husband Bob said after kissing the altar. "We have been coming here for 40 years and have wonderful memories of this parish," Marie said. "Two of our (three) children got married here. "
A viable and active parish like St. Francis should have been expanded rather than closed, said Bob, who will miss the social life and the opportunity for service that the parish offered.
"This is like breaking up a family," Marie said of the closing. "We don't know where we are going (for Mass). We are still shopping around."
Henry Kosinski, who was baptized at St. Francis 67 years ago and raised four sons in the parish, described the closing of St. Francis as a sad event in his life.
"It's a shame they had to close it," he lamented. "This church brings back a lot of memories. Too bad they decided to close this church and not the other smaller churches (around here); we have all the things, all the facilities that the other parishes lack."
Kosinski's wife, Mary, said the archdiocese should have reduced the number of services at St. Francis rather than close it. "I'm very disappointed," she said. "This is like the funeral of our church."
While everyone was in the church's yard enjoying the picnic, Rosellina Giardino, 27, was inside the church looking at the art, touching the pews, just trying to take in as much as she could. "I didn't expect this to be so emotional," she said. "I'll miss the sense of belonging and the sense of community that we had here at St. Francis."
Most of the church's furniture, including 54 pews, the tabernacle, the altar and some tables, are being donated to St. Joseph's Parish in Whitecourt, which lost everything in a fire nine months ago. St. Francis' neighbours - St. Dominic and St. Matthew parishes - will also get some items. All baptismal and marriage records will be kept at St. Matthew's, 13131-86 St.
"It feels tough; we lost our home," said Jim Maloney, chair of the parish council. "I don't know where we are going to go. This is where many of us spent our weekends, doing different activities. This is a thriving parish and a lot of people can't understand why it had to close."
Father Robert Mokry, the provincial superior of the Franciscans, said the friary and the church has been sold to Bosco Homes, an institution that cares for troubled youth. Since the beginning of June, Edmonton's remaining 16 Franciscans have been living at Clement House, a facility operated by the Redemptorist Fathers near downtown. The parish's food bank will continue to operate at the Bosco facility.
"It's very sad to leave the parish and all our friends," Mokry said. "It's sad and yet we know they'll continue to live their faith (wherever they go)."
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