To passersby, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church might seem to be a modest building in central Edmonton.
But to a parish community that has lasted nearly 70 years, it’s a beloved home that will close its doors on Sept. 30 when its 91-year-old pastor, Father Frank Stempfle, retires.
“I can’t believe this big piece of my life is going, and I don’t know where I’m going to go,” said Kay Mason, chair of St. Patrick’s parish council and a parishioner since 1940.
“I just thought we’d never close. I told Father he has to do my funeral! I started before there was a church, and I think it should have stayed until I was finished with it!”
Parishioners have always known that the day would come when St. Patrick’s would close down.
The church was slated for closure in 1998, when a Transformation of Parishes (ToP) review recommended St. Patrick’s merger with the larger St. Alphonsus parish nearby. However, parishioners pressed for the doors to stay open until the parish’s 50th anniversary in 2000.
Shortly afterwards, Cardinal Thomas Collins, who was Archbishop of Edmonton at the time, agreed the church would remain open as long as Father Stempfle was pastor. Now, after 66 years of ministry – 39 of them at St. Patrick’s – the news of Father Stempfle’s retirement is bittersweet.
“We all wonder where we’re going to go next or what’s next for us, what’s next for Father Frank,” said Shawn Cardinal, a member of St. Patrick Parish. “But at the same time, I’ve very proud of him and proud of what he’s done here.”
Cardinal’s wife Laurie adds: “He’s an awesome, awesome priest, person and friend.”
The Cardinals have a long history at St. Patrick’s. They were married in the church and their sons, Andrew, Benjamin and Edison, are altar servers.
Initially Ken Harcus, a Baptist, attended Mass at St. Patrick’s for his wife Elaine, who is Catholic. But it was Father Stempfle and the parish community who continued to draw him back.
“We’re like a family. Father Frank has encouraged us to live like a family, and he’s the father of the family. There’s been ups and downs, but he’s been a steady head of the family,” Harcus said.
Caterina Monai-Brophy’s 95-year-old father continues to serve as the caretaker at St. Patrick’s.
She says he’s happy to have been a part of the church until its closure.
“We’re just so thankful that Father Frank has brought us to this point,” said Monai-Brophy, whose family has been a part of the parish since the 1960s. “It’s hard, because we all know our faith tells us God’s church is beyond this parish, but the heart is just going to have a hard time letting go.”
The St. Patrick’s parish community first took root in a small, two-room school in 1934. After more families joined the parish, it outgrew the school and the first St. Patrick’s church was built in 1950.
The parish has faced its own share of hardships. In 1976 the church caretaker, Leo Bilodeau, was killed during a robbery of the rectory. A year later, an arsonist set the church on fire, causing more than $50,000 in damage and forcing parishioners to attend Mass at a nearby school.
Despite these events, parishioners strove to make the best of things. The parish was home to hockey teams, a youth group, Boy Scouts and Girl Guide troops. Parishioners held annual beer fests to celebrate Oktoberfest, and celebrated Father Stempfle’s milestones as priest and pastor.
And St. Patrick’s Day was a major event, complete with Irish dancers and a lavish luncheon.
Seasonal masses were especially important, because there was the possibility they might be the last.
“I was always delighted that there was another Christmas, and another Easter,” Shawn Cardinal said.
“We never know what’s going to happen.”
The parish currently has about 200 families, many of whom live outside the parish boundaries but have great affection for the pastor. Most say they are unsure what church they’ll attend in the future, but they are grateful to have the extra years at St. Patrick’s with Father Stempfle.
For his part, Father Stempfle said his experiences with St. Patrick’s have been some of the best of his life.
“They’ll do well, wherever they go! I’m sure I’ll be seeing many of them. God bless all the wonderful people who I’ve known at St. Patrick’s!”