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Canada's only designated Indigenous Church welcomes Pope

Fr. Susai Jesu, OMI, parish priest of Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton which will host the Pope on the first day of his Apostolic Journey to Canada, reflects on the significance of the Pope’s visit to the community of the only designated Indigenous Church in Canada.

By Vatican News staff reporter

Pope Francis arrived in Canada on Sunday to begin his 37th Apostolic Journey abroad – a “penitential pilgrimage” as he describes it – with an emphasis on the Indigenous peoples of the country who await his message of repentance and reconciliation.

On the lineup of the Holy Father’s activities on Monday is a visit to Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton, which will see him meet with members of the Parish community and the Indigenous peoples, including those who may not have a particular connection to an Indigenous organization or group.

Sacred Heart is Edmonton’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit parish and is the only designated Indigenous Church in all of Canada.

The Pope’s visit

Fr. Susai Jesu, OMI, a missionary from India and the Pastor at Sacred Heart, spoke to Vatican News’ Christopher Wells about the parish’s unique characteristics, his ministry among the indigenous peoples in Edmonton and preparations for the Pope’s visit among his parishioners.

Ahead of the Pope’s visit, together with the group of volunteers helping him, the priest says that they have also put a lot of work into listening to the Indigenous community – an activity that he says, is what they need most.

He shares in the excitement of the people who await the Pope, while not downplaying that it a visit of “healing and reconciliation.” Fr. Jesu notes that even though there may be some tensions, the parish community is focusing on the “positive spirit that is coming in.”

Listen to our interview with Fr. Susai Jesu, OMI

A parish for everyone

Sacred Heart parish is known for its ministry of receiving strangers and caring for them. The church serves 230 – 240 lunches to people in need daily, and provides clothing and other basic necessities to them, through the help of volunteers.

And even if preparations for the Pope’s visit may cause interruptions in this important service, the parish has made other plans to temporarily send those in need to nearby churches and outreach ministries so that “the people that we serve every day on are not overlooked, not left behind.”

“We want to maintain that inclusiveness and welcoming spirit. This is a national indigenous parish,” which welcomes both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, affirms Fr. Jesu, who insists that this character is maintained by not only “who we are” but also “what we do.”

For the 5 years he has been at Sacred Heart parish, Fr. Jesu has worked among the Indigenous peoples, trying, in his words, to “keep the shining light that they have” and “help them see their own light.”

His ministry in this field began in 2008 after arriving in Canada the year before. He even went on to take up a master’s degree in counselling, in order to be of better service to the Indigenous people

Sacred Heart Parish

Sacred Heart grew out of Immaculate Conception parish which was created in 1906 to accommodate immigrants to Edmonton.

The construction of the building was completed in 1913 and it provided a base for several ethnic groups who wanted to set up parishes that would reflect their origins, as they gathered their resources to build their churches. Over the years, several churches got their start at Sacred Heart.

Much of the church was destroyed in a fire in 1966, but the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965, required churches to remodel to accommodate the new style of communal worship, thus presenting an opportunity to remodel.

The Parish became Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples on 27 October 1991, when Archbishop Joseph MacNeil designated it Edmonton’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit parish.

Receiving Pope Francis

Fr. Jesu recounts that the parish suffered another fire incident on 30 August 2020, but nonetheless, has not missed a single Mass even if it did not have a Church. Weekday Masses have been held at the boardroom, which is now a chapel, and Sunday Masses are held at a Gymnasium at the Sacred Heart Learning Center.

The reconstruction work on the parish was finished just in time for the Pope’s visit, and Fr. Jesu expresses gratitude at being able to welcome the people and the Pope into the building.

As the parish prepares to host the Holy Father on Monday evening, Fr. Jesu prays that the event may “bring more healing and reconciliation, and together we walk forward.”

“That is my prayer. That is my hope,” he says.”

Source: Vatican News