An elder at an Indigenous church in central Edmonton says a visit from Pope Francis will mark a sacred time for the congregation. 

The Pope will visit the newly-restored Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton’s inner city on July 25 during his historic visit to Canada.

Fernie Marty, an elder from the Papaschase First Nation who worships and serves at Sacred Heart, said he feels grateful for the pending visit and the healing it will provide. 

Sometime during his Canadian trip, Francis is expected to deliver an apology for the harms suffered by Indigenous people at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church.

“It’s a sacred time, the Pope coming to Canada and especially Sacred Heart — the church of the Indigenous peoples,” Marty said.

The church has been closed since 2020 when it was heavily damaged by fire.

“It’s two years that people haven’t been in their church,” Father Mark Blom, an associate pastor at Sacred Heart, said Thursday.

“So the culmination of having the church return to the people, at the same time as Pope Francis is coming to visit, is really a great moment of faith and just joy.”

The 109-year-old building, at 108th Avenue and 96th Street in the McCauley neighbourhood, is one of Edmonton’s oldest churches. It opened in 1913 to serve a rapidly expanding population and has since become a refuge for many Indigenous worshippers.

In 1991, Joseph MacNeil, then archbishop of Edmonton, designated the church a national parish for First Nations, Métis and Inuit people — the first of its kind in Canada.

“It’s a unique church, located right in the inner city,” Marty said. He said the church regularly serves people experiencing homelessness.

“We have a unique history happening here and [the Pope’s visit is] important for myself, for my own personal healing to continue.”

Pope Francis holds an audience in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace with Indigenous delegations from Canada at the Vatican, April 1, 2022. (Handout photo via Reuters)

Pope’s Alberta itinerary

The pontiff will make three main stops during his Canadian visit during the last week of July: Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit.

Alberta’s capital city will be his first stop. Francis will arrive on July 24 and take part in a brief ceremony at Edmonton International Airport.

On July 25, he will meet with survivors at the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School in the community of Maskwacis, 100 kilometres south of Edmonton.

Later that day, Francis is scheduled to visit Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples.

The church has been shuttered since an August 2020 fire caused $350,000 in damage. Investigators determined the fire, which followed a ceremonial smudging, was caused by smouldering sage and ashes discarded in a coffee can full of cedar and herbs.

Some ceiling rafters and a work room were damaged. A mural depicting the first station of the cross was also scorched. Then, as renovations got underway, asbestos was uncovered behind the walls and had to be removed. 

Fire crews were called to Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in August 2020. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Restorations will be completed just in time for the visit. The church is expected to open for a blessing and its first mass on the Sunday before the Pope’s arrival.

Blom said the restoration acknowledges the importance of Indigenous peoples. Any person who is Indigenous is considered a parishioner and the newly restored church reflects that, he said.

The altar will have four poles in the shape of a teepee, emblematic of the church’s commitment to reconciliation through faith.

‘Very serious’ reason for Pope’s visit

The papal visit will be a blessing for the congregation, Blom said.

“We know that the reason for this visit is very serious, that it has to do with the great harms that have happened to the Indigenous, the Inuit and Métis peoples on this country from colonization — and particularly through the residential schools, which the churches, including the Catholic Church, had a large part to play in,” Blom said.

Francis committed to visiting Canada after meeting at the Vatican in April with First Nations, Inuit and Métis groups .

At that time, the Pope apologized for the “deplorable” conduct of some members of the Roman Catholic Church involved in Canada’s residential school system.

Indigenous delegates told the Pope they expected an apology to be delivered on Canadian soil.

During his Alberta visit, Francis will visit other parishes, meet with survivors and elders. On July 26, the Pope will celebrate mass at the city’s 56,000-seat Commonwealth Stadium.

The same day, he will take part in a pilgrimage at Lac Ste. Anne, 95 km northwest of Edmonton. For more than a century, First Nations and Métis Catholics have travelled to the site to celebrate the Feast of Saint Anne.

A man in a hardhat and construction vest stands inside a church.
Father Mark Blom stands before the restored altar where a symbolic teepee now stands. (Tricia Kindleman/CBC)

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

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