When Anna Pagliuso ‘volunteered’ her husband Bill to join the Finance Committee for Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton, neither of them could have foreseen the vital role that he would have in the future of the parish community.
Eighteen months later, the 107-year-old church suffered a devastating fire. On August 30, 2020 it was accidentally set ablaze by smouldering sage and ashes improperly discarded. When pastor Fr Susai Jesu arrived on the scene, the church was fully engulfed and firefighters were at work. “I was dumbfounded,” he exclaimed. “I thought, is it true? Am I really watching this? Jesus, help us to stop this fire!”
Archbishop Richard Smith promised to do everything he could to restore the property. “This is a sad, dark day,” he said. “For decades, this church has been the Catholic gathering place for Indigenous people. They love it, and when they see this their hearts will be crushed.” As many in the crowd choked back tears, they expressed their love for this church. Some uttered, “It is home to me.”
The downtown Edmonton church was built in 1913, making it among the oldest Catholic churches in the city. In 1991, Archbishop Joseph MacNeil designated it a national parish for First Nations, Metis and Inuit people, meaning that anyone in Canada with Indigenous ancestry is considered to be a parishioner. It was the first of its kind in Canada.
Co-pastors Fathers Susai Jesu and Mark Blom lost no time in calling forth parishioners to assume leadership in redesigning and rebuilding the church. Initial estimates of the damage amounted to about $2M.
Bill Purdue, himself of Metis heritage and chair of the Finance Committee, was given the added responsibility of chairing the Fundraising Committee. Vice-chair of the Finance Committee, Ron Martineau of the Frog Lake First Nation, a retired industrial construction manager, was named Construction Project Manager and Finance Secretary. The two men joked that Bill raised the money and Ron spent it. The reconstruction of the church became an opportunity for various parish groups to come together to redesign and rebuild it to reflect native spirituality.
First off, the building needed asbestos remediation, fire damage repairs and operational upgrades. Secondly, architectural changes were made to enhance Indigenous worship. The scripture passage “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) was chosen to appear over the altar. Indigenous Elders worked with various groups to create the internal design that would image this significant theme. A teepee, the dwelling place of some Indigenous people, was erected over the altar to symbolize the dwelling of the Creator among them. An eagle stand serves as the podium where God’s word is proclaimed and a baptistry and smudge stand were added. A side chapel was built and dedicated to St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
In facilitating the committees engaged in rebuilding and redesigning the church, Fathers Jesu and Blom enabled different groups to have a voice. While there were many challenges, parishioners – Indigenous, Metis, Inuit, Eritrean, Filipino, African and Caucasian – came together in expressing their hopes and were excited as they saw their values being incorporated. The newly formed CWL became, in Father Susai’s words, a “powerhouse” in offering Christian outreach projects that helped to build the community during this difficult time.
During reconstruction, the neighboring parish of St. Maria Goretti welcomed the Sacred Heart parishioners for the celebration of Mass. Their warm hospitality harkened back to the beginning of the church, which was built by Italian immigrants in 1907 and over the years hosted various immigrant groups.
The parish returned to their newly rebuilt church on July 17th when Archbishop Richard Smith rededicated the church and presided at Mass. At the time of this writing, there was excitement over the visit of Pope Francis on July 24th when he would offer a blessing at the new church.
Ron Martineau expressed his appreciation of Archbishop Smith’s support since that “dark, sad day.” He said, “We’ve turned a huge, huge negative into a huge positive.” That positive was, in the words of Bill Purdue, the opportunity for Fathers Susai and Mark to rally the Sacred Heart community to rebuild the church in Indigenous fashion. He likened the enthusiasm of the parish to a rebirth.
“We’ve turned a huge, huge negative into a huge positive.”
One is reminded of another rebirth voiced in the gospel. The prophetess Anna, upon seeing the infant Jesus in the temple, “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). Can we make a connection with Anna Pagliuso, who in volunteering her husband Bill to serve, exercised a prophetic role in the rebirth of the Sacred Heart parish community?