Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 25, 2006
Didsbury faithful struggle to keep their church open
A dedicated parish keeps the faith alive in St. Anthony's Parish in Didsbury.
By BILL GLEN
WCR Staff Writer
St. Anthony's in Didsbury is the little parish that could. From its humble beginnings in George Julian's home in 1931, the southernmost parish in the Edmonton Archdiocese has faced its share of challenges.
Yet the strength of its faithful simply refuses to let its doors close.
William Moon was one of several founding members of the parish who attended that first meeting in Didsbury, an agricultural community of some 4,000 about 15 km south of Olds.
His daughter, Winnifred Wollen, remembers how important his faith was for himself and his family.
"The parish is in my heart. My dad (and others) worked so hard to get the first church. There are still some old timers here," said Wollen, 83.
In the beginning . . .
"There were many faithful families who came to Mass from the country. The Julian family originally opened their home for the first Mass until (their home) was outgrown. The congregation then moved to the second floor of the second hand store."
On Oct. 1, St. Anthony's celebrated its 75th anniversary with an afternoon Mass attended by some 100 parishioners before heading over to the community centre for a large banquet.
"It was interesting in that when you usually have an anniversary like 75 or 100, it's usually so joyful. There was a heaviness about it. Probably more than anything it was a day of memories," said Father Les Drewicki, pastor of St. Stephen's in Olds. St. Anthony's is a mission of the Olds parish.
"It was different than you might want it to be, but it was still a very good day. We did see the history of the pioneers and some of the great things that have happened over the years. We have been trying to maintain a spirit of hope that things will turn around. Didsbury is a growing town."
St. Anthony's had been considering building a new church with expanded programs until the summer of 1999 when the transformation of parishes reduced Mass from once a month to special occasions, like Christmas and Easter.
No regular Mass
Drewicki says having Mass so rarely makes it difficult to keep the Catholic community together. The fact that parishioners strive to keep it vibrant is a testament to their faith.
The church remains a place for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament the first Tuesday of every month for 12 hours. The rosary and prayers are offered every day. Masses are scheduled periodically.
Wollen received her First Communion and Confirmation in Didsbury. She is a member of the parish's Catholic Women's League council. Wollen and her husband Herman were eucharistic ministers.
"My mother died when I was five and my dad raised eight children. I still remember he always had a rosary in his pocket," she recalled. "We only saw the nuns in the summer. That's when we learned our catechism," she said.
Wendy Mackenzie has been the parish's CWL president for about four years. She is also Wollen's daughter.
"We aren't a large chapter, but we perform community services in the town," Mackenzie said.
The local council has been active since 1937, first with the Altar Society and then the CWL. The women have hosted the World Day of Prayer and numerous zone conferences. They continue to assist the community by making meals while maintaining programs like sponsoring a child every summer to attend Our Lady of Victory Camp in Bentley.
"The CWL is important because it's a service that keeps the church going. I'm involved in a group that makes it happen, " said Mackenzie.
As the parish grew at the onset of the Depression, it needed a permanent home. Duncan Chrisholm made a donation of $500 for the purchase of an old United Church building, as well as two swampy lots across the street from a red brick school.
The church was put in position and at the request of Chrisholm, it was named after St. Anthony. Archbishop John MacDonald blessed the new church on Aug. 11, 1936.
It became known as "mosquito paradise" until it was relocated on higher ground at the north end of town. But that trip was not without complications. The church was moved late in the year and the cold caused it to freeze overnight in mud only halfway to its destination.
"Some people are absolutely heroic and remain steadfast in coming to Olds to celebrate their faith."
- Fr. Les Drewicki
When the ground was thawed the next day and the skids pulled out of the mud, the move resumed. But to save time fearing another freeze, a decision was made to place the church on its new foundation - backwards.
Architecture has since been designed to accommodate its orientation.
An extension to the front of the church was added in 1980 that provided a new basement entrance, a small foyer and additional seating space.
Parishioners take turns planting colourful flowers in the flowerbed.
The parish has been served by a number of priests, including Father Vic Perron who was pastor from 1990 to 1997.
"There was a lot of cooperation in the parish with the various programs we put on," Perron said. "Even without my involvement, they had devotions on a particular day of the week. Their identity as a parish was very strong."
Parish members continue to pick up the Blessed Sacrament and take Communion every Sunday to the sick and elderly in the area.
Lucy Paulson is parish council chair. She said the church continues to be used for a number of activities.
"The anniversary was well attended by former and current parishioners," she said. "The church is used by the CWL and the Knights of Columbus for various functions. It's also used for the ALPHA program."
The Knights of Columbus have had a presence in the Didsbury community for many years. Their council includes men from Olds and Sundre.
"We raise money for Bosco Homes, Newman (Theological) College and for Our Lady of Victory Camp. We sell hams at Christmas and Easter. We have garage sales," said Tom Natyshen, a fourth degree knight.
Natyshen and his wife Carole help serve Communion. The parish keeps a chalice in the church filled with consecrated hosts. When needed, a parishioner travels to Olds to receive more.
Drewicki notices several Didsbury residents every Sunday at St. Stephen's. "Some people are absolutely heroic and remain steadfast in coming to Olds to celebrate their faith," he said. "They are doing what they can."