Every seat in Edmonton’s St. Patrick Parish was taken — with many people standing against the walls and in the entryway on Sept. 30, as more than 500 people came to bid farewell to the church and its beloved pastor, Rev. Father Frank Stempfle.
“I love this parish. I love all of you,” said Stempfle, as he offered his last homily at the church, at the corner of 96th Street and 118th Avenue.
With tears, laughter, and some final words of wisdom from Father Frank, after 68 years of serving the community, the church was officially closed after the 10 a.m. Mass.
The parish closed by decree of Archbishop Richard Smith, timed with the retirement of Stempfle, 91.
“The church is not only made up of the building, but of people, the parishioners,” said Stempfle. “For 68 years, the people who have made up St. Patrick’s Parish have made this parish a wonderful, faith-loving community.”
Parishioner Rebecca Harcus’ husband, David, and his parents were baptized at St. Patrick’s.
With their three children also baptized there, it has been their religious home for three generations.
“It’s hard,” she said. “It’s a family here. We know everybody, their lives, this is the meeting place. It’s so much a part of our lives.”
The last Mass was also emotional for Father Frank, who was “certainly amazed” by the large turnout.
“I didn’t expect to see near as many people,” he said.
St. Patrick’s was a very easy and wonderful place to be the priest, said Stempfle, who served more than 15 years past the usual retirement age of 75 for priests in the Archdiocese of Edmonton.
“All this time I’ve been here because I wanted to be here,” he said. “I enjoyed it.”
A long standing ovation accompanied Stempfle’s farewell for Luigi Monai, 95, who became caretaker of St. Patrick’s in 1992.
Monai was sad to say farewell to the church, and to his pastor and good friend.
“He’s the best priest I’ve ever known,” said Monai. “He’s clear, warm, straight. He understands you, and doesn’t take any offence to anything said.”
Monai said he will likely move on to St. Alphonsus Parish, which will absorb the boundaries of St. Patrick’s, its sacramental registers, many of its parishioners, and the St. Patrick statue of the church among other religious items.
“God is there too,” he said.
Monai’s daughter, Caterina Monai-Brophy, said the final service was “tough.”
“I got really choked up seeing my kids and the other altar servers,” she said.
The family has been a part of the parish since the 1960s.
St. Patrick’s was opened in June of 1950. In the beginning there were about 600 families and in recent years that had dropped to about 200 families.
Many newcomers joined St. Patrick’s along the way, including Tammy Humphrey, who joined the church five years ago.
The “warm, angelic, spiritual experience” she felt the first time she came to St. Patrick’s kept her in the church, she said.
“It’s sad,” she said about the closing of the church. “I feel like we’re orphans.”
Humphrey said she will miss Father Frank and the many parties held in the church hall.
In 2017, the parishioners worked to have the street near St. Patrick’s Church named Father Frank Stempfle Way.
Stempfle is retiring after 66 years of faithful service as a pastor in the archdiocese.
He was born in Strome, Alta., on Dec. 9, 1926, to parents who were immigrant farmers from Germany, and devout Catholics. At age 25, he was ordained to the priesthood in 1952.
Stempfle served in many smaller parishes in Alberta, and as a military chaplain in Wainwright, where he learned how to fly a plane. He became pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish for the first time in 1970. He was appointed pastor of Assumption Parish in Edmonton in 1977, then in 1985, after a study leave in California, he returned as pastor to St. Patrick’s. He enjoyed his time there the most, gaining new friends, playing golf, and curling.
Stempfle is “probably the oldest serving pastor in Canada,” said Rev. Father Andrew Leung, pastor of St. Alphonsus.
The closing of the church is a sad time for parishioners, but is necessary due to the limited number of priests in the Archdiocese, said Leung.
“Closing a church is obviously a sad time for parishioners because they’ve given their heart, their life, and their soul to the church. So there’s a bit of a sadness,” said Leung. “But the Archdiocese of Edmonton has many churches, and parishioners understand, the staffing of the church, of the priest, we’re limited — so where you close one church, there is another church, and it’s not far away.”
The Archdiocese of Edmonton now has 59 parishes with resident priests, and 65 parishes and missions without resident priests, serving a population of about 419,830 Catholics, self-identified in the last federal census.