“Welcome the stranger then, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”
– Deut. 10:19
Receiving strangers and caring for them is the theme that runs through the history of Sacred Heart Parish from its beginnings to the present day.
The flood of immigrants to the Canadian West in the early 1900’s made it necessary to set up new parishes in a hurry. Sacred Heart Parish grew out of Immaculate Conception Parish, which had been erected in 1906 to accommodate immigrants to Edmonton.
By 1911, Immaculate Heart Church was bursting at the seams, so Immaculate Heart Parish was reserved for francophone Catholics and Sacred Heart Parish, with the same parish boundaries, was erected for all other Catholics. For the first year of its existence, while Sacred Heart Church was being built across the street, the parishioners were accommodated through services in Immaculate Heart Church.
Sacred Heart Church opened December 25, 1913. It was, and is, a beautiful structure in French Gothic Revival style, spacious and lofty but with an atmosphere of warmth and light. The glow through a large rose window fills the body of the church with a soft golden light, while around the walls are gothic windows with opalescent glass, the lower windows with the subdued glow of sunset and the upper ones the cool colors of a tranquil morning.
The immigrants who poured into Sacred Heart Parish found it a spiritual home as they got settled in this new country. Several of the ethnic groups wanted to set up parishes which would reflect their origins, and Sacred Heart provided a base for them as they gathered resources to build their own churches.
Over the years, the Italian parish (Santa Maria Goretti), the Spanish parish (Our Lady of Guadalupe), the Portuguese parish (Our Lady of Fatima), the Croatian parish (Nativity of Mary), and possibly others got their start at Sacred Heart.
The welcome to be found at Sacred Heart Parish included people of all faiths and backgrounds, as the needy and hungry were received and helped. Food was given out informally at the door for many years, and then from a food bank in the church basement from 1980 till 1988, when the food bank relocated nearby. Every Christmas, volunteers from all over Edmonton vie for a chance to serve at the annual Sacred Heart Christmas dinner, which began in 1971.
Much of the church was destroyed in a fire on November 16, 1966. Although a disaster, the fire’s timing was a blessing: the Second Vatican Council, ending in December 1965, had updated the Roman Catholic liturgy, requiring each parish to remodel the body of its church to accommodate the new style of communal worship.
The parish became Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples on October 27, 1991, when Archbishop Joseph MacNeil declared it Edmonton’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit parish.
The exterior of the building is unchanged in its classic lines and muted colors, but the church interior is now transformed with the vivid color and movement of our First Peoples parishioners.
The walls glow with original works of art by Indigenous and Métis artists: Way of the Cross by Sheldon Meek, a lake scene in the baptistery, a mural depicting the cosmic life journey of Jesus Christ, and large paintings, such as The Dance of the Eagle by Rob (Shoe) Glenesk are just some of the art works that inspire meditation.
Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples continues the tradition of welcoming others and making them feel at home. People of all backgrounds are welcome to join in worship at the First Nations, Métis and Inuit Mass on Sunday mornings. The parish identity as a “nursery” of new ethnic parishes is also still strong. The Ethiopian Orthodox presently have a spiritual home at Sacred Heart while they build a church of their own.
The sheltering spirit of Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples is symbolized beautifully in this watercolor, “On the Ledge” by Mel Health, Edmonton watercolorist. The pigeon rests safely on the window-ledge of Sacred Heart Church, till he is ready to continue his journey. The ancient tradition of welcoming the strange is vibrantly alive at Sacred Heart.