Edmonton Catholic Church of Indigenous Traditions Prepares for Pope’s Visit

EDMONTON — Cultures collide each Sunday morning at Edmonton’s First Peoples of the Sacred Heart Church, with sage burning alongside candles and Indigenous hymns and drums echoing through the congregations.

The century-old religious institution, located in the vibrant and diverse downtown neighborhood of McCauley, regularly mixes Catholic and Indigenous rituals in its services, making it an obvious backdrop for Pope Francis’ impending visit later this this month.

« This is a tremendous opportunity for healing for the indigenous people of this land, » church elder Fernie Marty said of the pope’s visit after smearing the room where a recent mass was held on Sunday.

“People from all over the country come to Sacré-Coeur. They want to experience cleansing and prayer in a totally different way. We always use the Catholic faith. It’s a combination of both worlds where we can learn to work and live together as individuals, no matter who we are or where we come from.

Pope Francis is due to meet about 150 church parishioners on July 25 as part of his six-day Canadian tour, which also includes stops in Quebec City and Iqaluit. That morning, he also had to stop at the former site of a residential school in the community south of Edmonton to apologize to the survivors.

Ronald Martineau, an indigenous member and financial secretary of the Church of the Sacred Heart, said the pope’s visit to the church was confirmed after a reverend from the church delivered a letter to the pope in April the inviting to the Church of the Sacred Heart. The pope had just apologized to Indigenous delegates at the Vatican for the role of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada’s residential schools and the intergenerational trauma it caused.

After the pope confirmed his visit, Martineau said the church was focused on accelerating renovations following a fire that broke out when a sage was left burning in August 2020. It damaged the church and exposed the asbestos in its walls. Congregants attended mass in different buildings while church leaders raised $900,000 to pay for construction.

Martineau said that while the church will not be fully renovated by the time the pope arrives, he is not disappointed.

« How disappointed can you be when the pope comes and wants to bless your church? » He asked.

Church member Theresa Yetsallie said after mass that she was looking forward to seeing the pope and would be thinking of her uncles who were survivors of residential schools.

« They lost their lives to alcoholism and they never talked about their experiences at boarding school, » the 70-year-old said.

« Every time I hear about what other people have gone through, I can imagine what my uncles have gone through again. And now, with the Pope coming, it’s a great blessing. It’s a great reconciliation. I’m so happy to be here for my uncles to say it’s so beautiful. I’ll be thinking of them all the time the pope is here.

Church Reverend Mark Blom said he hoped the pope would be able to recognize during his visit to the church that Catholics can embrace different cultures.

« We are a community of Indigenous, Métis and Inuit faiths and we also have many other people who have joined us who are non-Indigenous or have Indigenous backgrounds, » he said.

« That in itself is a sign of reconciliation, where you have people from all nations praying, serving and working together…It is possible for Catholicism to honor (different) traditions, symbols and spirituality without fear that somehow our Catholic identity is preserved,” he said.

He called the pope a « blue-collar missionary. »

“He insists on taking the bus and visiting people in their poor neighborhoods. So he’s already very, very strong about the fact that the church should shape itself around people’s needs rather than people positioning themselves to fit a certain image of the church.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 10, 2022.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of Meta and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press


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