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The French Community of Edmonton and the Catholic Church: parishes, schools and communities of religious

Although increasingly surrounded by the English speaking majority, the Franco-Catholic population of Edmonton and the surrounding area during the 1950s has over the previous fifty years or more accumulated a certain infrastructure and organisations. Although the mission at lac Sainte Anne was the first Catholic mission established in the greater region (1843), in 1854, St. Joachim was officially founded in turn at Fort Edmonton. The Fort had been visited by Catholic missionaries since 1838, but the register of the mission visits was then titled Fort-des-Prairies, as the fort was then commonly known. (As for Ste-Anne and St. Joachim, these two missions were seen as a pair, Anne and Joachim being the parents of Mary, the mother of Christ). St. Joachim eventually became a parish and two other parishes, St. Anthony and Immaculate-Conception, were formed around the turn of the century. The latter which served the French community was closed a few years ago due to declining numbers of francophone parishioners.

With the influx of English speaking parishioners, English began to dominate the services of the church, even if most of the clergy was francophone. It was only with the construction of St. Joseph’s church in 1925 (which became the cathedral) to serve the English-speaking community, that St. Joachim parish was able to revert back to French services for the French community. French speaking residents south of the river traveled to St. Joachim for church services. As for the outlying parishes such as Beaumont and St. Albert, they were also francophone, but fifty years later the linguistic dynamics changed very quickly in the rural regions near Edmonton, as they were transformed into bedroom communities. As an example, in 1953, when water and drainage services were installed in St. Albert there were only 43 hook-ups, but the town was quickly transformed into a small city. By 1990, the previous francophone parish of St. Albert had ceased providing services in French at mass, and francophones were obliged to use the chapel of the local funeral parlour for Sunday mass if they wished to hear it in French..

After 1950, there were many larger institutions and organisations in existence which provided services in French in the Edmonton region: the General Hospital, the Misericordia Hospital, the Collège St. Jean (after the closure of the Collège des Jésuites in 1943, the Juniorat St. Jean was renamed and was modified in its educational services), the Académie de l’Assomption (for girls), the Chevaliers de Colomb (Knights of Columbus) and the Dames de Sainte-Anne (a feminine church organisation similar to the Catholic Women’s League). At St. Albert as well there had been the large mission complex which had provided schooling facilities for First Nations children, but with the closure of the school in 1949, Foyer D’Youville, a residence for senior citizens was established there. As for schools, Collège St. Jean and Académie de l’Assomption were private, and they were able to provide schooling almost exclusively in French, but all other schools had to conform to the standards of the province in regard to education.

In 1952, a new chapel is built in Jasper Place, which is then a rapidly growing suburb. At first Sainte-Anne’s is simply a chapel served by St. Joachim parish, but after 1953, it becomes a parish. During this time, at St. Albert, one of the large buildings left idle by the closure of the residential school is transformed into Star of the North (Étoile du Nord) retreat centre, which is still in service today and is used for meetings, group workshops and various meditation purposes.

The city of Edmonton has always been a service center, particularly for the northern part of the province. During the 1950s, several communities of religious build large “provincial-headquarters” for their “province of religious jurisdiction”, residences for training and retirement purposes, not anticipating the recruitment crash which was become all too obvious by 1960. In the catholic school system, for instance, during this time the religious were being replaced by lay teachers. In 1951, the Daughters of Jesus who at that time had their centre in Morinville, bought land across the street from the Collège St. Jean and established a provincial house in one of the buildings there. A few years later, they built the large Maison St. Joseph there. A few of the sisters taught at the local catholic school St. Thomas. In 1959, a new parish to serve francophones south of the North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton was finally established by concerned members of the French-Canadian community. At the Maison St-Joseph, the Filles de Jésus established a daycare centre. Eventually they donated a large parcel of their land for the construction of the present-day parish church, l’Église Saint-Thomas. The Daughters of Jesus recently opted to sell their provincial residence which had become much too large for the few remaining nuns; the large cinderblock building has been demolished and the Centre de Santé St. Thomas, a health-care facility for francophones is rising on the site. With the advent of urbanization, bilingual programs and recently exclusively French schools, St.Thomas school was closed and the lot sold. The Cité francophone now stands at this spot. The French school École Maurice-Lavallée now provides educational services to children in the neighbourhood.

Several others communities of francophone religious, also chose to centralize their operations in Edmonton during the 1950s. Having arrived in Alberta in 1859, the sisters had played a large role in the establishment of Edmonton’s General Hospital. A large provincial residence was built in West Edmonton which it was thought would serve as a noviciate for recruits. With the fall in enrolment, the residence has been used as a retirement home for aged nuns of the order, and also as a center for retreats, meetings, workshops and conventions. Similarly the Sisters of Providence, who worked in missions across western Canada, built Providence Center in south Edmonton, on 30th avenue and 119th street. This centre is used both for retired nuns and as a centre for retreats and conventions, much as the Grey Nuns centre is. The Sisters of Holy Cross (Soeurs de la Sainte-Croix) also built a new provincial centre on Whyte Avenue during this time period as well; they too have sold their building and built a smaller residence to better deal with their reduced numbers. The Sisters of the Assumption had long used the Académie de l’Assomption as a central residence, but when the private school was closed the sisters purchased land elsewhere, and are now established in the French Quarter. They avoided building on a large scale however, and the retirement facilities for their elderly members are at the mother-house at Nicolet in Québec. Since the fifties, the Oblate order has also used some of the former mission residences into retirement homes for members of their order. As with several other communities of religious, they have deposited their documentary collection at the Provincial Archives of Alberta.

The advent of official bilingualism in Canada revolutionised the availability of education in French for francophones in minority situations. In the Edmonton area, at first there was a rush towards bilingual schools, which J. H. Picard School is still providing education in French for children of Anglophone origins. But it was the Crown v Mahé decision at the Supreme Court which brought the greatest improvement to what for too long had been gross insufficiency as concerns French education. There are now many French schools in the area: École Maurice Lavallée (Kindergarden to 12) dates from 1984, Legal’s École Citadelle (K-9) from 1990, St.Albert’s École La-Mission from 1995. Several other schools have been established, École Notre-Dame (K-6), École Jeanne-d’Arc (K-6 and École Père Lacombe (K-6). There is an urgent need for a Franco-Catholic high school on the north side of the city to provide services for children of Legal, St. Albert, Griesback military base. One is foreseen for the near future. There will soon be a new French school in Sherwood Park and probably for Millwoods as well, in an attempt to avoid overly long bus rides for children from Beaumont or Leduc. The demand is so high that the Conseil scolaire Centre-Nord has seen a 27% increase in attendance in 2006; a similar increase is expected for 2007. There are now nearly 2000 children attending francophone schools in the greater Edmonton region.

Audio Clip

The Oblates of Mary Immaculate and Lac Sainte Anne | Read

Video Clip

Lac Ste. Anne - Pilgrims' Progress (5:57)

The healing powers of Lac Ste. Anne date back to the mid-1850s when a prayer for rain by members of the drought-stricken community was answered. Today, people from a variety of cultural backgrounds make the yearly pilgrimage seeking spiritual renewal and a chance to reconnect with friends and family.


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