Serving many needs
By Susai Jesu, OMI
EDMONTON – Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples provides pastoral care to the homeless, marginalized, the poor and urban Indigenous peoples of the Edmonton area through numerous ministries offered by the parish. In 1991 Archbishop Joseph McNeil designated Sacred Heart Church as a National Indigenous parish, the first of its kind in Canada. Anyone with Indigenous ancestry is considered a parishioner. However, everyone is most welcome as we are all part of the one circle of life (medicine wheel).
Sacred Heart Parish is a unique Catholic community that incarnates Indigenous culture with Christian faith. As a result of this uniqueness there are many requests for educational tours on Native spirituality from schools in Edmonton and surrounding areas. The dialogue on Native spirituality includes explanations of symbols that are in the church such as the Medicine Wheel, eagle, Native Way of the Cross, Métis sash, and interpretation of the artwork. There is also an explanation on the use of smudging that is done before and during the mass.
Rituals meaningful to native culture are incorporated into the Catholic liturgy. The church is filled each Sunday with Indigenous peoples (First Nations, Métis, Inuit and others) from Alberta, Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan and beyond. It is one of the busiest parishes in Edmonton, mostly dealing with the marginalized, the poor and the homeless.
Sacred Heart is also a unique parish for priestly training. Seminarians from Newman Theological College come here on a weekly basis for training. We also receive Oblate seminarians who receive training and orientation to inner city parish life.
Brother Abraham Hernandez Reyes from Guatemala arrived at Sacred Heart in December, 2017, and immersed himself for six months in pastoral activities with the homeless, hospital visits, house blessings, visiting agencies within the area and listening and learning from the elders.
Another Oblate seminarian from the United States will be arriving in the fall to spend 10 months with us.
Sacred Heart has a large immigrant and refugee community and works closely with Catholic Social Services to sponsor the many refugees (mainly from Eritrea and Sudan) that arrive in Edmonton each year. Every Sunday, mass is celebrated with an Eritrean community of approximately 600 fervent faithful. This group is very active, supportive and collaborative with the parish community.
The parish is located on Church Street in the McCauley area of Edmonton. McCauley is a vibrant, ethnically diverse inner city neighbourhood. Sacred Heart is nestled between Chinatown and Little Italy. The street is famous for its many churches: there are 19 churches located on Church Street, of which 14 are functional. Sacred Heart Church is one of the most active and busiest.
There is also a large presence of homeless and marginalized people in the McCauley neighbourhood whose needs are acute. The parish is involved daily to try and meet those needs. As well, many of the city’s agencies that offer services to the homeless, marginalized and low-income families have a presence in the area.
Sacred Heart parish has many
ministries and activities that are ongoing throughout the year to meet the needs of all the people in the inner-city area. The liturgical ministries include Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, RCIA, marriage preparation, music/choir ministry, Eucharistic ministry, funeral and wake services, pastoral care and hospital care ministry.
Communion for the homebound
Our volunteer Eucharistic ministers make weekly visits to provide spiritual comfort and communion to the homebound and nursing home residents of our parish community.
At the request of the community, a team consisting of Archbishop Emeritus Sylvain Lavoie, OMI, Lucie Leduc, Oblate lay associate and director of Star of the North, and Fr. Susai provide spiritual guidance to those who request it.
Receiving Step Five
There has also been a strong demand for receiving Step Five of the AA program. Archbishop Emeritus Sylvain Lavoie, OMI, and Justin Robert have offered to provide this service for the parish.
Grief counselling is provided to help people cope with grief and mourning following the death of loved ones. This is a new ministry for Sacred Heart Parish and the response to this service, provided by certified grief counsellor Helen Gledhow and Fr. Susai, has been tremendous. This team follows up with the grieving families after the funeral service. This has become a growing need.
Clothing/household goods/food distribution
Our clothing/household goods and food distribution occurs on a daily basis. Each day we have the poor and homeless people coming to the door that are in need of clothing, food, furniture, money, bus tickets, and household items. Many also request crosses, rosaries, holy water and blessings.
We are fortunate to have the Salvation Army deliver cases of bread twice a week to Sacred Heart, bread that is then distributed to those in need in the community. They also provide, on a less frequent basis, cases of non-perishable food items, fresh vegetables, clothing and diapers that are then distributed as people come to the door. Cobs Bread, a local bakery, also donates a large amount of day-old bread once a week to the parish for distribution.
Food items, perishable and non-perishable, are always in high demand as many people are in need of enough food to sustain them for a short period of time. Many Edmonton families generously donate household items, clothing and furniture daily, which are then given to people in need.
Originally from the Cursillo movement, St. Paul’s Prayer Group has been meeting for the last few years at St. Joseph’s Basilica. Recently they decided to move to Sacred Heart Church for their bi-weekly gathering. The group shares their rich experience of piety, study and action that continually feeds our spiritual growth as disciples of Jesus Christ. The membership of this group is growing.
In response to the Archdiocesan Pastoral Letter by Archbishop Richard Smith, and at the request of our parishioners, we have started a Bible study group that meets bi-weekly. At each gathering we choose one parable from the Gospel that is printed in the Sunday bulletin for everyone to reflect upon. During the gatherings, all are welcome to share their insights on this parable.
The Ultreya group, part of the Cursillo movement, meets every three months with 60 to 80 members attending. In a climate of friendship, members share their life experiences based on the three tenets of Cursillo life: prayer, study and action. It continues to grow and has been very successful.
This is a tradition in First Nations and Métis culture. The majority of Indigenous families who have funerals at Sacred Heart Church for their loved one hold a wake in the church hall the night prior to the funeral. The wake provides an opportunity for family and friends to grieve, view the deceased’s body, get together and share their memories of the deceased person, which helps with the healing process. It is a time of reflecting and looking back on the person’s life. Often the wake goes throughout the night with many family members and friends attending. Wakes may include prayers, drumming and a feast. This ministry is unique to Sacred Heart Church.
The poor, lonely, alienated, those without families, all reach out to our parish to provide funeral services they can’t afford. They are encouraged to make a donation, but most often nothing is offered and the parish bears the full brunt of the cost. Nevertheless, we feel called and are committed to helping the poor who are carrying the double burden of poverty and loss.
Sunday lunches, prepared by the Lions Club and volunteers, are provided once a month. As many as 700 people, including many homeless from the inner city, attend these lunches. For most of these people it may be the only meal they have that day.
At the initiative of St. Vincent de Paul Society, Sacred Heart Parish started a monthly movie night. Movies of a spiritual and religious nature are shown to provide an entertaining and informative social event to help build community.
Each year Sacred Heart Church organizes two large events – a children’s Christmas party and food hamper distribution. For those living at or below the poverty line, each month is a struggle to provide for their families. Our ministry in the inner city is year-round, but assistance is most urgently needed at Christmas. Through the continued generosity of organizations, businesses, corporations, individuals, schools and parishes, we are able to provide Christmas gifts for children and hampers for families.
Oblate parishes lend a hand
We were blessed to have three Oblate parishes (St. Albert, St. Charles and Lac St. Anne) within the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton who generously support our Christmas activities. The Our Lady of Perpetual Help diocesan parish in Sherwood Park also provided generous support to meet our needs for the Christmas hampers. Bishop Savaryn Elementary School was most generous in providing us with completed hampers to give away. The assistance these parishes and school provided through financial and food donations helped make these much needed activities a huge success.
These events depend on the time and commitment of hundreds of volunteers. With their generous giving of time, we were able to comfortably reach our goal of providing a Christmas to remember to those in need.
With all these ministries and activities taking place throughout the year, we are at times the busiest parish in the city, as well as the poorest. Sacred Heart Church is not self-sufficient, although that is our eventual goal. We are grateful that the Archdiocese of Edmonton generously supports our ministry. We are constantly in need of financial assistance to continue this much-needed ministry in the inner city. We graciously invite and encourage donations so that we can make a difference in the lives of the homeless, marginalized and the poor.