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Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples

Sacred Heart is a unique Edmonton inner-city parish that, in 1993, was designated by Archbishop Joseph MacNeil as “the official Parish for the Catholic First Nations Peoples of Edmonton and surrounding communities.”

The decision reflected the reality that the inner city had become the home of many Aboriginal Peoples. In fact, according to a 2001 study by the City, Edmonton is the second-largest Aboriginal community in Canada with 30,365 Aboriginal residents.  These numbers are only exceeded by the Chinese community. The report also notes that the Aboriginal Peoples self-identify as follows: 52% Métis and 44% North American Indian, with the balance being Inuit or multi-ethnic. The languages spoken include: Cree, Stoney, Chipewyan, Saulteaux, Dene, Beaver, Blackfoot and Sarcee.1

As a result of the massive wave of immigration to Western Canada, beginning in the 1890s, the religious needs of Catholics from various countries needed to be met. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a missionary congregation founded in 1816 by French nobleman Eugène deMazenod, since their arrival during the 1840s in what became the Province of Alberta, had established churches. Initially these served the needs of Aboriginal Peoples but eventually, the Oblates began to address the needs of settlers. 

Edmonton, AB - Sacred Heart Catholic Church, c1948, Photographer - A. Pillippot, OM. (OB593 - Oblate Collection at the PAA)In 1906, Immaculate Conception Parish was established, but by 1911  it could no longer satisfy the needs of all the city’s Catholics and Sacred Heart Parish was created, within the same parish boundaries.  Immaculate Conception Parish was dedicated to the needs of Francophone Catholics, while Sacred Heart Parish was designed to serve the rest. Immaculate Conception served both groups until December 25, 1913 when Sacred Heart opened. 

The Church is an impressive brick structure in the Gothic Revival Style and was designed by the firm of Hardie and Martland. The building features gothic details such as the central pointed arch above the front door, rose windows and two towers. At the time of its construction, its spire was the tallest in the city. The cost of the structure was $50,000 of which $14,000 was raised by the congregation within the first year after construction.

The Boyle-McCauley area of Edmonton in which the church is located became the home of successive waves of immigrants including Ukrainians and Italians. Catholics of all ethnic origins worshipped at Sacred Heart until their own churches could be built. In fact, Italian-speaking Oblates said mass in that language in the early 1950s before Santa Maria Goretti Parish was built. As an inner-city parish, Sacred Heart is associated with serving the poor of many faiths. An annual Christmas dinner was begun in 1971 and an informal food bank was run out of the basement from 1980-1988.  On November 16, 1966, the church was damaged by fire and rebuilding was done according to the dictates of the Second Vatican Council to facilitate communal worship.  Thus, the new altar faces the congregation.

Reverend James L. Holland, OMI, (OB33014 - Oblate Collection at the PAA)In 1990, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Grandin Province, officially staffed the Parish with Oblate priests to work with the Native people. Rev. James L. Holland, OMI, is the Pastor. As it was the tradition of the Oblates to incorporate aboriginal languages into religious practice, at Sacred Heart Parish they are used in the liturgy, and aboriginal ceremonial plants including sweetgrass, sage, cedar, tobacco and fungus are also used. Many songs which had already been translated into Cree are also sung with the accompaniment of traditional instruments including drums. Church programs include the holding of traditional native wakes to honour the dead; an annual children’s Christmas party that serves the entire inner-city community; and music festivals, dances and feasts. The Edmonton Inner City Children’s Project Society runs their programs in conjunction with the parish.

Since the Church received its First Nations’designation, the artwork reflects this mandate.  The Church’s website identifies the following artworks: “The 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….. The sheltering spirit of Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples is symbolized beautifully in the 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 stranger’ is vibrantly alive at Sacred Heart.”2 The Parish is also involved in the annual pilgrimage to Lac Ste Anne, which has been taking place since 1889.


City of Edmonton, ABORIGINAL EDMONTON: A Statistical Profile of the Aboriginal Population of the City of Edmonton, December, 2005

Sacred Heart Parish of the First Peoples Website, http://www.sacredpeoples.com,   retrieved May 7, 2009.

Gilles Cadrin, “Nation et Religion, l’établissement des paroisses “nationales” d’Edmonton,’ in Écriture et Politique, les actes du septième colloque du Centre d’études franco-canadiennes de l’Ouest tenu à la Faculté Saint-Jean, Université de l’Alberta, les 16 et 17 octobre, 1987, eds. Gratien Allaire, Gilles Cadrin, Paul Dubé (Edmonton, Alberta: Institut de recherche de la Faculté Saint-Jean, 1989), pp 173-183.

1. ABORIGINAL EDMONTON: A Statistical Profile of the Aboriginal Population of the City of Edmonton, December, 2005, p 1, retrieved May 6, 2009. http://www.edmonton.ca/city_government/documents/CityGov/AbEdPresentation.pdf

2. Sacred Heart Parish of the First Peoples Website, http://members.shaw.ca/rhythm1/sacred/history.html,   retrieved May 7, 2009.

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