Indigenous church rededicated in preparation for papal visit to Edmonton

CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) [Toronto, Canada]

July 17, 2022

By Samantha Schwientek

Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples was rededicated this weekend following a fire nearly 2 years ago

A historic Catholic church in Edmonton is ready for a visit from Pope Francis following a devastating fire two years ago.

With just a week before the Pope is scheduled to arrive, Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples reopened its doors for the first time in two years. 

The church celebrated the rededication on Sunday and held its first mass since August 2020 to the delight of parishioners and clergy alike.

Father Cristino Bouvette, national liturgical co-ordinator for the papal visit, said he was amazed at how quickly the work was done. 

“The first day I saw it, compared to what it looks like now that it’s been dedicated, is nothing short of a miracle,” said Bouvette, who has Cree and Métis ancestry.

The church features Indigenous cultural pieces including medicine wheels, teepees and smudging pots. The Stations of the Cross, in which followers imitate the path of Jesus on his way to his crucifixion, are all done with Indigenous designs, according to Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith. 

“Oh, it’s essential [to include Indigenous culture],” Smith said. “A lot of thought went into this by the elders of this community. This is what we want to have in our church.”

That inclusiveness was significant for many, including Candida Shepherd, a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta and the representative of the parish council at Sacred Heart.

She noted that in the past Indigenous spirituality was devalued by the Catholic Church, so including elements of Indigenous culture at Sacred Heart Church helped with healing. 

Even with all the new fixtures and features in mind, Smith said repairing the church was about more than the building. 

“What is particularly unique here is that the rededication is taking place in the context of this country’s desire to rededicate themselves on the journey of healing and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.”

Shepherd agrees. The restored church allows parishioners to claim their identity and move forward to “indigenize” the rest of the city, she said.

In 1991, Joseph MacNeil, then archbishop of Edmonton, designated the church a national parish for First Nations, Métis and Inuit people — the first of its kind in Canada.

Elder Fernie Marty, a member of Papaschase First Nation, has attended Sacred Heart for “20 years at least.” 
The restoration of the church is a blessing, he said, especially in time for a visit from the Pope. 

In April, the Pope apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools while he was in the Vatican, but Marty said he hopes to hear another apology during the upcoming visit.

“I believe it’s very, very important that he comes here to Canada to make that apology. This is where the atrocities happened, here in this country,” Marty said. 

Pope Francis will arrive in Edmonton on July 24 and take part in a brief ceremony at Edmonton International Airport.

On July 25, he will meet with survivors at the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School in the community of Maskwacis and then to Sacred Heart Church. 

On July 26, the Pope will celebrate mass at the city’s 56,000-seat Commonwealth Stadium.

He will leave Edmonton and fly to Quebec City on July 27 and wrap up his visit to Canada two days later in Iqaluit.