For St. Francis Xavier Parish in Camrose, a brand-new church and parish centre is cause for celebration, but also a tangible reminder of the need to build up the sense of community among the city’s Catholics.
About 500 people turned out Oct. 26 for the official dedication of the church, a $17-million project that had been some 10 years in the making.
“It’s truly so much more than a building,” said Judy Sommer, who chairs the parish pastoral council.
“For those people who are just coming to check out the new building or are coming to see how things have changed, or who haven’t been in church for years, we want to be able to appeal to what they need so that they will stay as parishioners and feel welcomed as part of our faith, our community.”
That outreach was evident throughout the celebration. Senior members of the parish and elders from the surrounding mission communities of Hay Lakes, Round Hill, Bawlf, and Duhamel, were invited to light each of the 12 dedication candles mounted on the walls around the nave. The candles were mounted in decorative metal brackets crafted by local artist Darrell Morris, who also produced a stunning metal holder for the tabernacle lamp.
At a luncheon that followed the Mass, table centrepieces featured dried plants collected and arranged by Grade 5 students from Our Lady of Mount Pleasant School, each accompanied by a handwritten verse of Scripture. The school held a number of events to raise money for the church, including a drive-in movie night on the site before construction began. Students at St. Patrick elementary school raised more than $9,000 to help pay for the dedication candles.
When the need for dessert donations was announced at Mass a week earlier, Sommer said, some 50 parishioners stepped forward with more than enough cakes and squares.
“We want the young and old to feel that this is their church,” Sommer said. “And we need to be open to new ideas ways of encouraging people to become involved, even if it’s just in specific, small ways.”
That sense of belonging will be crucial as the parish, which has just over 1,100 registered families, works to pay off some hefty bills.
“It’s a big concern, there’s no two ways about it,” Sommer conceded. “And it’s not just the next five or 10 years; it’s going to take us a while to pay this down. But I have a cousin who is a farmer, and he said you don’t buy a farm and pay it off right away. It’s an investment.”
She said parish council and the new pastor, Rev. Joby Augustin, are looking at creative ways to raise the funds to pay the off a $14-million debt. Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith referred to that challenge during his homily.
“I remember the meetings held in my office to consider plans, discuss vision, to review blueprints, and to wonder ‘How we would ever pay for all of this?’ ̶ a question now very lively in the mind of your pastor,” the Archbishop said.
“Within the parish, too, there would have been meetings to imagine, design, furnish, and fundraise. We gather in a church that has been many years in the making, and give thanks to God for inspiring the generosity and creativity that has brought us to this moment.”
Archbishop Smith also reflected on the difference between church, a building, and Church, the people of God.
“This particular edifice is held together by mortar, bolts and so on,” he said. “The mortar uniting us as God’s people is the gift of faith, by which we daily lay aside our own plans and surrender to God’s purposes.”
“We need to be in this physical church in order to be the Church. And you have created a beautiful one, which itself will now stand forth to the community as a beacon reflective of the light of your faith. You have fashioned a beautiful legacy that for years to come will teach people that faith is beautiful, faith is necessary, and that the faith of those who made possible this particular building was very strong.”
The new church is more than just a building, said Father Augustin, the new pastor.
“Church does not mean just come for the Mass and go away. This becomes the centre of any community for their faith life, to come together, to pray together, to meet together and walk together as one family.”
As the new pastor, Father Augustin said he felt “excitement, plus a lot of anxiety” when he first arrived earlier this year, but he’s been welcomed with open arms and helping hands.
“I’m so happy. It’s wonderful for people. This is a great parish, a lot of resources in the way of volunteers,” Augustin said. “People are ready to commit themselves and come out to do whatever is being asked of them, especially with this dedication day itself.”
Among those celebrating the moment was architect Sergio Poles of HFKS Architects, who symbolically handed the church plans over to the Archbishop as the Mass began. A lifelong Catholic, Poles has also worked on renovations to St. Joseph Basilica and designs for Holy Trinity Church in Spruce Grove, St. Joseph Church in Grande Prairie, and Corpus Christi in Edmonton.
Both he and Sommer credited much of their success to the vision of Rev. Larry Pederson, the former pastor of St. Francis Xavier parish, who retired earlier this year.
Poles pointed to the holders for the dedication candles as one example.
“Father Larry wanted four nails symbolizing Christ,” he said. “And if you look closely, you see a small notch with blue and red; that symbolizes the piercing of Jesus by the soldier, the blood and water.”
“We’re not liturgists, but just to hear Father explain all that and tie it together, it’s very humbling.”
When it came to installing the old bell in the new tower, the architects figured they’d design a remote control system. But Pederson said “no.” He wanted people to experience the ringing of the bell by actually pulling on the rope.
“And the kids absolutely love it,” said Poles. “You should see their faces when they get to ring the bell!”
Throughout the Mass, the sound of running water could be heard from a massive granite baptismal font at the entrance to the nave. “Father said he wants to hear the water, it has to be living water,” said Poles. “So that’s why we made channels nice and big, so the water kept circulating through.”
Asked how she’d advise others on building a church, Sommers said they need to be prepared for a long journey, a lot of work, and “They need a Father Larry Pederson.”
“They need someone to have the vision and understanding of the liturgy and symbolism and to have the wherewithal to do the research into the historical aspects of our parish and also St. Francis Xavier. “It’s such a beautiful meld of so much symbolism, it’s just woven throughout.”