Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 29, 2008
Friars played key role in developing Church in Alberta
Fr. Dennis Vavrek
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
The Franciscans Friars — currently celebrating 100 years of their arrival in the West — played an important role in the development of the Church in the Edmonton Archdiocese and indeed of Western Canada.
Since their arrival from Montreal a century ago, the friars have founded and served several city and rural parishes and missions. They have also ministered to immigrants and the poor of the inner city and have been involved with Newman Theological College since its inception in 1969.
Currently the Franciscan Province of Western Canada has 46 members across the West, including eight men in formation. Father Dennis Vavrek, a Franciscan since 1987, leads the province.
“Our origins in terms of our anniversary are in this archdiocese,” noted Vavrek, explaining that Oblate Bishop Emile Legal invited the Franciscans to the Edmonton Archdiocese to do mission work.
Three Franciscans arrived April 11, 1908 to take care of the Catholic population in Lamoureux. Two more friars arrived a few months later. Father Boniface Heidmeier, who came in 1909, oversaw the construction of Our Lady of the Angels Church in Fort Saskatchewan.
At that time north Edmonton was experiencing rapid growth brought on by the arrival of the Canadian National Railway in 1905 and the construction of a large meat plant by the Swift Canadian Company. The newly-created jobs drew many new immigrants to the area and Legal again turned to the Franciscans, asking them to minister to the community.
The first Franciscan contact with north Edmonton was on Nov. 1, 1908 when Father Arthur Rappard came from Lamoureux to celebrate Mass in a lumber supplies building.
“We did an awful lot of work with immigrants in the earlier years — basically helping them to settle,” noted Father Don MacDonald, a professor at Newman and former principal or head of the order. “We were originally French, then gradually we began to serve in English.”
From 1909 onwards, the Franciscans were involved in establishing parishes such as the now-closed St. Francis of Assisi, St. Clare’s and St. Matthew’s and serving 42 missions in communities such as Pine Creek, Chipman, Mundare, Redwater, Clover Bar, Thorhild and even a place called Sucker Slough.
It became clear that the friars had decided to stay in North Edmonton when in May 1909 they began construction of a temporary church-friary — a 12x24 foot log cabin — several blocks from the meat packing plant.
Work on a permanent friary, a three-storey brick structure believed to be the largest building in the district was begun in 1910. Construction of an adjacent church — St. Francis of Assisi — started a year later.
“Two fires and three church buildings later, St. Francis of Assisi Parish, under the consolidation of parishes program of the Edmonton Archdiocese, closed in June 2005,” states the Franciscans of Western Canada Magazine.
In 1924 the order established St. Anthony’s College, whose objective was to attract vocations. In its first academic year the college, which was adjacent to the friary, admitted seven boys aged 14 and older. The following year that number rose to 34.
Commitment to education
By the 1930s St. Anthony’s had expanded its mandate to include Grade 9 through to the first year of a bachelor of arts. The number of students in residence peaked at 90 in 1952.
But with the development of the Catholic school system, private boarding schools declined in popularity. As a result, St. Anthony’s College closed in 1970, after having schooled more than 1,000 students, many of whom have gone on to distinguished careers.
The Franciscans, however, continued their involvement in education. They have been strongly involved in theological education in Western Canada since the establishment of Newman Theological College in 1969.
Over the years the order has provided the college with presidents and deans and a multitude of professors. MacDonald, who has taught at Newman for 40 years, has served as college president twice.
Newman has also been the place of theological education for the friars in formation.
In the summer of 2005 the old friary was sold and the friars moved to a new location on Jasper Avenue. Currently, there are 14 friars and students in the Edmonton residence.