Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
June 14, 2010
Fr. Stempfle keeps St. Patrick's doors open
Parishioners of this inner city church and its priest celebrate its 60th anniversary
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON - In 1998, an archdiocesan committee decided that one major church along 118th Avenue was enough.
The number of parishioners at St. Patrick's Parish was in steady decline and it faced imminent closure. The inner city church went from having three Sunday Masses to one on Saturday, one Sunday. The parish became smaller, but no less energetic or devoted. With an important milestone fast approaching, the parishioners were determined to keep the church open for another two years at the least.
"We were going to celebrate our 50th year in 2000, and we didn't want to close before that. So here we are, 12 years later and still going," said Kay Mason, a longtime parishioner.
From 1940 to 1950, before the church was built, Mason went to Mass in St. Patrick's School during the school year and Sacred Heart Church for the summer months. St. Patrick's Church opened its doors June 13, 1950, and Mason has been going there ever since.
She has many memorable experiences in the church, with her children's Baptisms and marriages, and close friends' funerals happening there.
Not only did the parish stay around to celebrate its 50th anniversary, it soon celebrates its 60th. Archbishop Richard Smith will be there for the Sunday morning Mass.
The church remains open because Father Frank Stempfle has been willing to stay on past retirement age.
"Father Frank is the main reason we're still going. He promised God that if he could golf three times a week, he would stay an active priest. If they close the church, he will retire and the archdiocese will lose another great priest," said Mason.
Stempfle, 83, is only the third pastor the parish has had, serving from 1970 to 1977 and then again from 1985 until now. The other pastors were Msgr. Edmond Donahoe, from 1949 to 1970, and Father Edward Purcell, from 1977 to 1985.
"This has always been my parish and we love Father Stempfle. His homilies are the best in Edmonton or anywhere. His homilies are short and to the point," said Mason.
Being a small parish, Stempfle said it's easy to be the priest there.
"The idea was that it would be closed some time ago. The plan for 118th Avenue was that there would be only one church left here. There are four and they were going to close down all but St. Alphonsus.
"Now they realize that St. Clare's Parish is pretty active and has quite a few people. As for St. Pat's, I guess once I'm out of here, it will probably close," said Stempfle.
The church building is not a well-built structure, its walls bowing out. Architecture and design students from NAIT use the church for some projects because it serves as an example of how not to build a church.
The parish has endured more than its share of tragedies. In August 1976, an intruder broke into the rectory to burglarize it and murdered the church caretaker, Leo Bilodeau.
An arsonist set fire to the church on May 4, 1977, gutting the interior of the church. Mass was celebrated at St. Patrick's School for the next eight months, while reconstruction of the church took place.
An inner city church at 11811-96 St., St. Patrick's is close to a lot of criminal activity.
"It's not as bad now, but this corner is very bad for prostitution and drugs and God knows what," says Stempfle. "In this city I doubt if there was any place with more (criminal) activity than right here. It's gone down now.
"The police have done some cleanup work here, but it was really bad for the past few years."
Gwen Davies, a former teacher at St. Patrick's School and another longtime parishioner, developed many friendships at the church over the years. When Stempfle became an uncle-at-large to her son, she started volunteering there as a secretary.
"There have been a lot of strong friendships, a lot of togetherness. It seems to be like a family here. It's a parish where everybody really cares about each other and you drive them to church if they can't get here. The ladies group was probably the heart of the parish," said Davies.
At its peak, the parish had an active youth group and the Catholic Women's League had 70 to 80 members. Less active than in bygone years, the parish still hosts an annual St. Patrick's Day tea, bazaars, bake sales, potluck meals, dances and other social events.
Flamenco dancers came to the church recently as a fundraiser for Haiti. With the Cornerstone of Faith campaign, which raises money for the new theological college and seminary, the parish reached two-thirds of its goal within weeks.
A hopeful sign for the future is that young families and newcomers from Vietnam and the Philippines are attending Mass lately.
"People have sort of adopted this parish as their own and started coming here because it's convenient for them," said Davies.
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