Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
November 9, 2009
Communities of warmth
In rural parishes across the archdiocese, people stay long after mass and cherish their priests
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
In rural Alberta, one is unlikely to find a Tim Horton's or major shopping outlets. For some villages, finding a store that stays open past 9 p.m. is a rarity. A necessity for the Catholics in these small towns is the local parish. For them, keeping God's presence alive in their churches is a must.
While every parish is different across the Edmonton Archdiocese, there are some common threads. They know everyone by name and enjoy the after-Mass socializing. In some places, the congregation is declining in number and growing in age. In others, children abound.
But everywhere, one thing is the same - the people love and cherish their priests.
Father Gabriel Udeh is the priest at St. Margaret's Parish in Rimbey, a small farming community about 62 km northwest of Red Deer.
"Although the people in the city care for their priests, in the rural parishes, they try hard to keep their priests and make them happy," said Udeh.
One time his car broke down, and the mechanic told him that the necessary parts had to be ordered from the U.S. A parishioner, recognizing that his priest was in need, loaned him his car for a week.
"In the city, that would never happen," said Udeh.
With a population around 2,000, Rimbey's 140 or so Catholic families know each other by name - another commonality among rural parishes.
"Many people stay for coffee one hour or two hours after Mass, or they stay for lunch. You don't see that in a city parish. In the urban centres, people are always in a hurry," said Udeh.
Some Catholics go elsewhere, perhaps lured away by the bright lights of the big cities, in search of a more progressive church in an urban centre. Still, many prefer the tradition and quaintness of their small-town parishes. Even in old parishes with dilapidated pews, the churchgoers feel more at home.
Robert Vitar, a parishioner at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Calmar since 1991, said, "We would like to stay traditional. It's not a good thing to go with a new flow like the bigger churches. We are happy with our church, and we're happy with our priest. Our priest is an awesome priest.
"We want to get the word out that a big church is not the answer. We like our small church."
The priest in Calmar is Father Joseph Vadassery, who also pastors St. Maria Goretti in Devon and Our Lady of Victory in Thorsby.
Thinned by age, population drain, and young people flocking to the urban centres, the declining number of parishioners has resulted in the closure of some rural parishes, as seen in Chauvin and Round Hill, but that is not the case with Vadassery's three parishes.
KEEP SMALL CHURCHES OPEN
Archbishop Richard Smith emphasized in one of his talks that he plans to keep the small churches open, he said. "There are no plans for more closures. I'm sure that churches will stay open and people will get their service and a chance to practise their faith."
For a village of fewer than 1,000 residents, Thorsby has an active parish, with between 100 and 135 people attending Sunday Mass.
"We are a more traditional parish, but everywhere you go are people with both ideas, whether they want to be traditional or a little more modern. Of course, we always find people who really want to stick to the traditions," said Vadassery.
In Calmar, a new generation of churchgoers is coming to the parish. With the youth active in the liturgy and young families attending, the parish appears to have a bright future.
The church recently installed a new elevator, sound system and refrigerator. It is erecting a new gate at the cemetery, and recently completed an ambitious project called the Book of Life, which features photos and brief biographies of all 58 buried in the cemetery.
The church bulletin is more evidence of how active the parish is, announcing Baptism preparation classes, catechism, parish council meetings and a fall ham dinner for Nov. 21.
Barb Abel has been going to St. Margaret Mary since she was an infant. Back in those days, many young families and children went to the church.
"But now I see that the younger couples don't want to come to church - just Christmas, Easter, Baptisms, burials and marriages, that's it. The next generation could come back in full force - you just don't know," said Abel.
Every district throughout the archdiocese is different, she said. Whether in Bashaw, Hobbema or Villeneuve, every parish has its own individual charms and foibles.
"If you notice here today, everybody knows everybody and their kids," said Abel. She refuses to travel the 30 or so kilometres to the large Edmonton parishes because they don't have that same friendly appeal.
"It's warmer here. We come down here and have coffee, and we mess around, joke around, the kids all play. If you go to the city parishes, there's nothing."
The ease of meeting new people is evident in the rural areas. In Calmar, churchgoers stayed around after Mass Nov. 1 for chili, coffee and fellowship.
STUDY IN CONTRASTS
Father Joselito Cantal has served in both urban and rural parishes. He found them a study in contrast, going from the downtown St. Joseph's Basilica in the city to the small community of Provost. He prefers to work in a rural area, but said change is always good for a priest.
"In the city you have lots of friends, but in the rural area it's sometimes not easy because families are busy with farming and everyone has their own lifestyle. You know them when they come into the church or when they invite you to come and visit them.
"You get to know some people, but most of the time you are all by yourself," said Cantal, who pastors both St. Mary's Parish in Provost and Corpus Christi in Consort near the Saskatchewan border.
"It's more relaxing because you have more time to yourself. You get to know the people because it's a small community. The only thing that's a problem is the driving because I have two parishes to look after," said Cantal.
The Consort parish is a community of about 40 families, and about 20 or 25 are active in the church. About 50 people attend a typical Sunday Mass.
In a worst-case scenario, if the Consort parish closed, families would have to drive either 80 km to Our Lady of Graces Parish in Castor or 100 km to Blessed Sacrament Parish in Wainwright. For some, the long drives might prove too difficult, and they would cease going to church altogether.
LOTS OF DRIVING
"Driving from Consort to Wainwright is an hour and a half. A lot of people wouldn't drive, especially if the weather is bad, and there's lots of deer crossing. The driving is the big impact here.
"The way I see it, if people realize that faith is very important in their lives, they should go to church," said Cantal.
Some families will get up early on weekends to take their children to hockey games. Cantal would like to see the same enthusiasm for sports in Provost directed towards their faith.
"Church is very important, especially here in the rural area. We are very close to the boundary in Macklin, Sask. If the church were to close here, then there's no other place people would go because of the distance to travel. It's important to continue supporting St. Mary's in Provost.
"Faith here is strong and the community is very vibrant. Interdenominational faith and working together is important here. The future is bright, and it's a growing community," he said.
Soon celebrating his fourth year as a priest, Father Nilo Macapinlac resides in Vegreville, home of St. Martin of Tours Parish. He also pastors Holy Heart of Mary in Viking and St. Gregory the Great in Holden.
Holden, a community along Highway 14, about a one-hour drive east of Edmonton, has a population of about 400. The church draws from the surrounding farms and acreages. Between 35 and 40 people attend the Saturday evening Mass at St. Gregory Church. It's a greying congregation.
Margaret Pobran told the WCR that the parish had more people attending Mass 10 years ago. But as young families move away to find work in the bigger centres, the church was left with empty pews.
"We don't have too many kids coming here. If they're young, they leave town and go working someplace," said Pobran.
The community's main street has a grocery store, public library and a few other basic amenities. Everything is within walking distance, including the church, which makes it handy for older people or those without transportation.
"The biggest problem is that we have a Saturday night Mass for eight months out of the year, which isn't really fair. It takes a lot of our older people away," said Marian Maruszeczka.
"There are about five people missing tonight because they will either go to Tofield or Viking tomorrow morning because they will not drive at night."
"It (St. Gregory) seems to be the favourite in the area, among the other local parishes that are a part of us. It's a small church, and some people enjoy coming here for the smallness and because it's intimate," said Dave Maruszeczka.
A lot of people also enjoy staying around after Mass for coffee, snacks, socializing and watching the Nothing More Beautiful series on DVD.
"They like that," said Albin Lukawiecki.
Lukawiecki said he has attended Mass in larger centres where, instead of coming downstairs for coffee afterwards, people "go uptown to some swanky café."
"Our group, we go downstairs and visit and it's friendly," he said.
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