Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 3, 2007
Stelmach shares his Catholic faith
Alta.'s first Catholic premier was formed in faith from his youth
By RAMON GONZALEZ
"We have to change the way politics is done."
- Premier Ed Stelmach
Stelmach, now 56, is soft-spoken and remarkably modest, despite the fact he's never ran in an election he didn't win, from county council in 1986 to the race to succeed Ralph Klein last December.
He exudes calm, making his guests feel at ease.
He speaks proudly of his family and his roots, which extend back in Alberta to 1898. That was when his grandparents immigrated to the Andrew area from the village of Zavyche in Ukraine. They settled on the land that Stelmach and Marie still farm today.
When the Basilian Fathers established their monastery in Mundare in 1902 Stelmach's grandparents would travel by horse and wagon to Mundare for Mass.
But soon they got tired of travelling the 14 miles to Mundare, and along with three or four other families, they decided to build their own church, just a quarter of a mile from the Stelmachs' homestead. They would call it Protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary and it is the same church the premier and his wife still attend today.
"So my grandfather would go to Mundare by horse and buggy on Saturday to pick up the priest so the priest would stay over in our house Saturday and then say Mass on Sunday." After the morning Sunday Mass the priest would stay over for dinner. Sometimes grandpa would drop the priest back in Mundare on Monday.
The Stelmachs' two-storey home, built in 1916, had a room totally dedicated to the priests. The late Bishop Neil Savaryn, while he was still a priest, stayed in that house numerous times. "In fact he helped us harvest one time; he stayed a little longer so he could help us."
It was at the homestead church that the young Ed learned the basics of the faith. And as his parents were members of the parish's executive the young boy's affiliation with the church was strong.
"I was an altar boy at the homestead church and in our home mom and dad carried on the tradition of always inviting the priest for dinner," he recalled. "During the 1950s brothers and sisters would stay at our house when they were teaching catechism during the summer months."
His friendship with the Ukrainian Sisters of Mary Immaculate became solid thanks to several months he spent at the Mundare hospital being tutored by the nuns after he fell off a slide in first grade and broke his left leg.
"I was away from school for about three months but the sisters prepared me very well through tutoring. They would assign people in the ward (patients) to read to me, to do arithmetic, etc., so I came back to school totally prepared. It was a blessing to be in a hospital like that. I probably would have missed the year if it wasn't for the sisters."
His prayer life has always being rich. His family used to pray together and attended church together, a tradition that he continued with his own family.
"One of the things my faith has really taught me is to respect others, especially the people that work for you."
"As a child I remember asking God to keep me out of trouble when I was going to school," he recalled, smiling. "Now (as a premier) I pray not for the decisions but for wisdom, confidence and strength. And strength comes from confidence."
The day after he won the election as Conservative Party leader he attended a service at St. Basil's Church in Edmonton, where Father Daniel Wach gave him a special blessing.
"That (blessing) was very meaningful to me and gave me a tremendous confidence," he said. "When you pray to God you feel good and confident; you feel you can take on any task."
From altar boy, Stelmach became a member of the church choir at age 15, perhaps not by choice. "What happened was that I couldn't golf and party unless I attended choir practice first," he recalled. "If I did, then I could have the car." That was the start of his and Marie's 35-year membership in the choir.
When Stelmach was growing up on the farm, the population was much greater so the Divine Liturgy was held at the church every two weeks. Now, it is only once a month so the Stelmachs travel to Mundare for services on the other weekends.
But wherever they go they sing in the choir. "We've sung in so many churches, anniversaries, events, weddings, funerals, prayer services. Now the choir is much smaller because a lot of the young people who sang in the choir have moved to the city. We don't sing as often as we did before."
In addition to his faith, Marie has also been a steady source of support and strength for Stelmach.
"Our marriage is very strong. When we moved to the farm Marie did not work. She raised the children and was the strength behind the family. And of course together we made the decision to seek office at the municipal level and then provincial and then premier."
She continues to support him and acts as his ambassador. "Marie travels with me to different places in the province; she is sitting on (boards of) 18 different charitable organizations from children hospitals to the Glenrose (Rehabilitation Hospital) and contributes financially to Habitat for Humanity for housing."
Stelmach has been described as a tough negotiator, but said he prefers to work with people to build trust and consensus.
"One of the things my faith has really taught me is to respect others, especially the people that work for you," he said. "One of my strengths is I'm patient with people and in a leadership position that's important.
"Today you can't direct people to do things - you listen, suggest, you allow people to grow. And I know everybody in the office here is aware of my religious principles and beliefs."
The high number of abortions in Alberta has always been a concern for the Catholic premier but he says he is limited in what he can do.
"The issue with respect to abortion is a decision that has been made in the federal court; we are obligated to deliver federal programs. We are as a province, though, offering programs of support for families (and) for young women to find ways of assisting them through obviously a very difficult period.
God provides food for birds but he doesn't deliver it to the birdhouse.
"But we are obligated to deliver the program as per federal law."
One of the premier's priorities is making sure all Albertans enjoy a better quality of life, including those who set up tents in downtown Edmonton because they don't have homes.
"We are fairly affluent as a province; not everybody is going to be at the same level obviously but certainly people should have a home and food," he said.
"I will say, and this is something my parents and the Church taught me, that God provides food for birds but he doesn't deliver it to the birdhouse. So people have to be responsible; we have to help those that have disabilities or health issues.
"Definitely we have to look after those but I am from the old school and I don't believe somebody should sit in the armchair thinking that somebody is going to deliver a program to them without making an effort if they are physically able to do it. That doesn't come from my teachings."
He noted the province has offered "all kinds of assistance" to the people living in Tent City, including housing, food and protection of their valuables. "This is one area that we are working with the people showing compassion because many are there as a result of addiction and mental illness."
Are there any permanent plans for the tent city people and the homeless in general?
"Yes. That's why my government has put in more than a quarter of a billion dollars into housing. But we can't deliver that program directly; we have to do it through partnership with municipalities and we are moving in that direction."
Despite his busy schedule, Stelmach still has time for hobbies. "I play some golf but my real hobby is to work on the farm. That's where I'm happiest. We had a few days off so I watered the trees, fixed plants, took the dogs for a walk. That's what I miss the most."
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