If we could imagine a few cowboys praising the Lord with country music and coming to Mass on horseback with their best hats, faith in Alberta could not be summed up with these clichés. (Although, they are true from time to time!). So who are the believers in Alberta? In the land of cowboys and mountains, God has also pitched his tent. Now let’s zoom in on the reality of believers in a part of Western Canada.
Alberta is a "land of immigration", says Ambroise, who has been living in Calgary for a little over a year. Naturally, the young man, originally from France, was looking for a community to join when he arrived from Montreal. His goal was to find young people and a community that would connect him to his French heritage.
"I haven't been able to find the best of both worlds - people my age with whom to practice my faith or with whom to talk to about religious topics. However, I have felt a bit at home since I think that speaking one's native language allows you to really connect with yourself and your identity."
People "at Mass!"
Ambroise attends the English-speaking young adult community of St. Francis Xavier Chaplaincy, as well as the only French-speaking parish in Calgary, Sainte-Famille. These two communities are not necessarily opposed to each other, but both offer their own richness and spiritual nourishment. However, "particularly linking oneself to a parish" remains complex.
"St. Francis Xavier is quite typical of the relatively young English-speaking communities in North America - a kind of return to a certain root in the sense of a search for a connection to the “origins”, also quite intellectualized. It's a certain return to the roots where excess is removed.”
"At Sainte-Famille, it's more family-oriented. Older. There are fewer young people. There is this balance with families and a lot of interculturality and involvement of multicultural people in the life of the parish. It facilitates the integration of newcomers! I think there's a nice welcome.”
"Indeed, in the pews on Sundays, there are the Knights of Columbus, newcomers from the African community, French "expats", families from Quebec, seniors from Alberta’s French-speaking community who have been involved for 30 or 40 years and, in the midst of all these beautiful people, an Iraqi parish priest of more than ten years who belongs to the Chaldean Church. They are really beautiful people at Mass!
What strikes Ambroise most in his experience of faith in the West? "Close-knit communities! For example, Sainte-Famille is a close-knit community mainly because it is a welcoming community for French-speaking Christians. In a desire to integrate, I think that as a newcomer, you have the desire to get involved.”
He also had this impression of a "close" and tightly woven community during his visit to Lac Sainte-Anne, a well-known pilgrimage site where Pope Francis visited last summer.
Parish atmosphere connected to local life
The pastor of Sainte-Famille Parish, Monsignor Noël Farman, recently visited several classes in some French Catholic schools in Calgary to have discussions about the sacraments and faith. Some young people asked him about how one can get baptized. It was such a great opportunity to connect. In fact, it is the children from several classes who will be making the decorations for the major liturgical feasts at Sainte- Famille Parish again this year. This is something that does not occur in Quebec, but which seems to be lived organically in Alberta.
In 2003, the Conseil de l'Education de la Foi Catholique (Council of the Education of the Catholic Faith amongst Francophones) chez les francophones de l'Alberta (CÉFFA) was born out of a need for "faith education among francophones". CÉFFA offers materials in French, resources to accompany the four French-language school boards in Alberta, and, above all, "a network of collaboration, exchange and training for those involved in the dioceses, school boards, schools and parishes". All of this "in a dynamic that complements the family, school and parish plans", as stated on their website.
The Alberta church is also rolling up its sleeves to respond to the call of Pope Francis by going to the peripheries. For example, there are prayer vigils on Tuesday evenings at the L'Arche community in Calgary (and probably elsewhere).
Elizabeth House, an initiative of the Sisters of Charity of St. Louis and the Diocese of Calgary since 1996, is a home for single mothers who are pregnant or have a baby and provides a space for living and rehabilitation.
Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO) has a strong presence on Alberta university campuses, and the founding couple is originally from Alberta. In short, for many, faith echoes the spiritual and social needs of Alberta's territories and offers a venue for action and prayer.
Urban Christians, rural Christians
"I come from the area around St. Paul [two hours from Edmonton], where there is a fairly strong Francophone presence," explains Claudie-Anne, married with three children. The surrounding villages were all founded by priests who brought in French Canadians at the beginning of the last century. So the faith has shaped our countryside."
Like many places in Canada, she senses a decline in Catholic religious practice. However, Alberta does not seem to be having a "quiet revolution." "The transmission of the faith has happened without any sudden interruption." As a result, the "vast majority" of people around her believe in God, whether they are Catholics or other Christian denominations.
"I would say that the community’s faith is going to Mass on Sundays. And that's it. We have very few opportunities to share or nurture our faith. We still manage, but sometimes we feel alone as young people holding the dual Francophone-Catholic identity." In addition, she and her husband are involved in various parish services. "The rest of our faith life is spent as a family and as a couple."
Landscapes in the heart
The territory obviously marks the faith experience. The countryside or the city. French or English. The traditions or the modernity. There are so many differences that can separate as well as unite. It's all about the art of drawing from the right places and finding a little time to offer where the heart is called. Nature cannot be absent from this growing journey of faith. In front of these grandiose landscapes of nature, where lakes and mountains touch the sky, where the heart expands in front of so much space and majesty, the soul can only grow by criss-crossing new interior landscapes that are mysteriously revealed. It is almost as if one could see the Good Lord arriving on horseback, far away, leaping over the hills (Cf. 2:8) and into the valleys of green grass where small herds of cows graze quietly here and there, living their most beautiful life.
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers