“You do not have to be Catholic to be interred here, but most are,” says Deacon Paul Kennedy, who manages the columbaria at Sacred Heart. Kennedy knows that many Catholics are uncertain about what the Church teaches about cremation. And that’s why he takes his job so seriously. Kennedy knows what the Church teaches. He is also convinced that many who visit Sacred Heart’s columbaria will leave with a new understanding of why a growing number of Catholics will choose cremation—and a columbarium—in the years to come.
According to information from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Roman Catholic church lifted its prohibition against cremation in 1963. Twenty years later, the option was coded in canon law. Over time, Christian Funeral Rites were altered to set the parameters for when cremation can take place before a Funeral Liturgy.
The rites detail where cremated remains are placed during the Funeral Liturgy (never on or immediately in front of the altar). They also spell out the need for all of the cremains to be placed in a secure vessel.
Fr. Edmund Vargas, a former pastor at Sacred Heart, first talked to Kennedy about establishing a columbarium in 2005. When the first of the 3,000 niches went on sale about five years later, the church-based facility was one of the first—and possibly the first—in Canada. Then-Bishop Fred Henry blessed the first columbarium at Sacred Heart on May 13, 2011, with the first interment that same month. The second columbarium opened in 2013.
Accessible by elevator and stairs, visitors enter the columbaria through a locked door. Mourners receive a punch key code that allows them to visit the indoor space 364 days of the year. “The only day we are closed is Boxing Day. I know some people come here every day to spend time with their memories,” notes Kennedy. “On the second Saturday of each month, we also host a special memorial service in the church. Those are always well-attended, and many people visit the columbaria after that mass.”
A sacred space
The hallways inside the columbaria are adorned with 13 stained-glass windows. Purchased from a Catholic church in Buffalo, New York, the 150-year-old windows were painstakingly restored and framed. “We’ve backlit the windows, and the effect is beautiful. Visitors feel like they are walking past actual windows. You lose any sense that you are in a basement,” explains Kennedy.
Once inside, visitors can rest on comfortable benches upholstered in an elegant shade of burgundy. Recessed ceiling lights contribute to the calming hue of the muted-yellow walls and ceilings. A lack of adornment inside the columbaria keeps eyes drawn to the niches.
“Father Edmund chose very meaningful names for the columbaria,” adds Kennedy. The first columbarium is called the Holy Land, and its sections are named after Holy Land locales, like Bethlehem and Mount Herman. The Galilee section includes smaller areas named Grace, Hope, Joy, Peace and Serenity. A special section in the Serenity area holds the cremains of stillborn babies and others who died soon after birth.
Most of the niches in the Holy Land are single niches, “but people can reserve two single niches, side-by-side, as long as they are available,” says Kennedy.
The second columbarium, with more niches designed for two or four urns, is named Holy See. Each of its sections references a Holy See location. Again, families can purchase several niches in an area.
People interested in touring the columbaria can reach out to Kennedy at Sacred Heart. He’s also available to speak with groups, including parish-based groups like the Knights of Columbus and Catholic Women’s League. Those interested will receive an Estate Planning Guide from a Catholic Perspective.
“People have a lot of questions, and I’m here to answer them,” says Kennedy, who’s already secured a Sacred Heart niche for he and his wife.
While he’s learned not to guess what questions people will bring to their first conversations about the columbaria, Kennedy’s accustomed to how the meetings end. “There is comfort in knowing what will happen after you die. After people choose a niche, their response is typically the same. They tell me, ‘I feel relieved.’”
From the day my Father, Theodore was brutally and callously murdered in Toronto, on Easter Monday, March 27, 1978, I wanted to meet his killer. I wanted to know how it was possible to do such a horrific thing. I wanted to know how he felt about destroying the lives of so many; my family’s, and his own.
We did meet. The meeting occurred in July of 2007. Because of reading about an award I received for my Therapeutic Writing Workshops and the publication of my books about healing, voice, and agency, he emailed me. Our meeting, our reconciliation, even those many years after that dark, dark day, was a rich blessing in my life and proved helpful for him too.
The word forgiveness is one that can lead to great suffering for victims and offenders alike. Victims are told that if they do not forgive, they cannot heal. Offenders are told that if they are not forgiven, they cannot move on from the crime they have committed. Forgiveness is a loaded word, with as many understandings, expectations, and definitions as there are experiences of savage loss, savage grief, savage pain.
In 2012, after too many years of thinking that my life did indeed end with my Father’s, I completed a Master’s Thesis. The title: Sawbonna-Justice as Lived-Experience. Sawbonna means shared-humanity. It also means I see you, you see me.
Sawbonna means that no one is better in the eyes of God. It means that we are good, bad, ugly, amazing, loved, loving, and free. Free to know that whether we can forgive or are forgiven by another human being, we are deeply known, cared-for, and embraced by God. A God who invites us, gently and generously directly back into our very own hearts. Hearts of love. Hearts of justice. Hearts of Sawbonna. We are seen. We each matter.
Laura Tysowski pays homage to her late role model and author of The Passion of Loving, Micheline Paré. In her letter Laura shares what she learned from the book and what she wished she told Micheline before her death. Micheline Paré worked as a Compassionate Care Consultant and as the Diocese of Calgary Pastoral Care Coordinator at Rockyview Hospital. Her message of love and hope is something we all could benefit from at a time of loss.
My Dear Micheline.
When we met for the first time somehow our souls locked. I was sitting in the front row and you came up to me with a smile and touched my hand and whispered in my ear "You are beautiful". It's been months since we last talked. I'll never forget the day we first met at St. Cecilia's Roman Catholic Church. It was May 17, 2018 at the Diocesan Pastoral Care Course #84. "Caring with Compassion".
I sincerely apologize for not getting back to you sooner. As Benjamin Franklin once said, "Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today. From this I learned the value of time; snatch, seize, and enjoy every moment of it. No idleness, no laziness, no procrastination: never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.
I was wanting to go and have coffee with you at the Rockyview General Hospital and maybe I could volunteer with you in working with the elderly. I did complete the course, "Caring with Compassion" and now I'm an Exemplary Pastoral Minister.
I have the two books titled "The Compassion of Loving" you signed and gave me during the course. I have two because I promised that I would get one signed by the Honorable Senator Dan Hayes who wrote the preface to your book "The Congruent Compassionate Approach".
There are days Annemieke Henri has to make herself leave her home in Bowness. Widowed just months ago, she knows that it’s important for her to be around other people. She knows it’s good for her to get her own groceries, attend Mass and meet up with long-time friends to golf, bowl or snowshoe, activities she enjoys. Henri also knows that her forays into the world sometimes do little to stem what can feel like a rising tide of sadness. Grief is like that. Even when you have others to grieve with, you grieve alone.
Henri’s husband, the beloved Deacon Albert Henri, died August 28, 2018. Diagnosed with stage four lung cancer just 48 days earlier, “he’d never been sick before, never been in hospital,” recalls Henri. A mother and grandmother, she grieves Albert’s loss in her family. “I also grieve his loss as a deacon’s wife. We were deeply connected to the parishes of St. Bernard’s and Holy Name.”
Does Henri take comfort in her faith? Absolutely. “At this point, I hope and believe that Albert is in heaven; that he is home. Without my faith, I would have been really lost.” But make no mistake; while faith gives Henri a kind of life raft, there are days—and moments in almost every day— when it doesn’t feel like the raft will hold.
When grief fuels despair
Peggy Tan knows what it feels like when grief fuels despair. Several years ago, Tan lost her mother and father-in-law in close proximity. “It was devastating to our family.” Struggling through the intense emotional pain, she joined a grief support group at her parish, St. Michael’s.
Now known as Grief Share, the program runs for eight weeks beginning in January and September. Those who need more immediate support are linked to a companion program. “We are not counselors, but we listen. It’s good for the person who is grieving to know they are not alone,” says Tan, one of the three parishioners who coordinate grief support at St. Michael’s.
While most GriefShare participants are Catholic, many begin the program angry with God. Following a Christian program developed in the U.S., GriefShare uses prayer to help participants rekindle their trust in God, says Tan.
Annemieke Henri hasn’t ruled out joining a support group in the future. For now, she seeks comfort in family and long-time friendships, including one with the widow of another deacon. She is also learning that it’s okay to sometimes want to be alone in her grief. On Christmas Day, for example, Henri took a few hours away from family to be alone. “I started fretting about that first Christmas alone way before Christmas. I took some time that day to feel that deep loss, to want it to wash over me and to feel my connection with God.”
As grief is a profoundly personal experience, it’s not uncommon for people to reach out for grief support years after a loss, says Tan. “People have to be ready and the Holy Spirit will guide them.”
Written by: Joy Gregory
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers