Parishioners of St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church on the Piikani Nation will arrive at the Christmas Eve mass a bit early; the church is relatively small and the place is likely to be packed. Upon entering the wooden building, the faithful will pause near the front door, using their hands to waft sweet grass smoke over their heads and arms. Smudging is an indigenous spiritual practice that’s used to bless or purify people before meaningful ceremonies. At St. Paul’s, the smudge bowl is side-by-side with the holy water. It is a practice Fr. Roy Jayamaha embraced when he arrived at the country church nearly four years ago.
Having worked in Catholic communities in Pakistan, where more than 98 percent of people practice Islam, the Sri Lankan-born priest knows that meaningful inter-cultural dialogue requires action. “I feel the main pastoral work here is to lift high the spirit of our people and respect their rich culture, I always try to find connections to meet them with Creator."
St. Paul’s is located in Brocket, a rural community about 20 km from Pincher Creek. Since Fr. Roy’s arrival, the church has added a tipi-shaped tabernacle. Other altar and church hall adornments also feature the work of local indigenous artists.
Parishioners appreciate the integration of their cultural practices and symbols, says Vera Potts, who has served as parish council chair since Fr. Roy arrived. A mother of three, grandmother of seven and great-grandmother of 11, the 80-year-old Potts takes that same attitude of a willing servant to work with her every day at the local health clinic, where she still works full time.
A residential school survivor, Potts admits she can be overwhelmed by fearful memories of that experience. “I’ve learned to forgive. But being human, it’s hard to forget and a lot of triggers happen still today.” Nevertheless, her faith provides consolation and hope. “I can trust in the Lord. He’s the only one in the world who could pull me through what I experienced.”
Once open mostly for Sundays and funerals, St. Paul’s began offering Sunday and daily masses when Fr. Roy arrived in 2016. While this country pastor typically celebrates the 5 p.m. daily mass alone, people are coming to the Sunday service. Many of them stay after mass to share food and fellowship in the basement hall. These informal gatherings include full meals after masses that celebrate major feast days or important events. The potlucks attract Catholics and non-Catholics alike and all the food is donated. “In our culture, the elders teach us never to be stingy with food. We share food. We live by that,” says Potts, noting that Christ taught the same.
Parishioners also volunteer their time to maintain the church and grounds, which includes a grotto and a small-scale replica of the first church that once served a Catholic residential school located about 7 km from present-day St. Paul’s.
Since Fr. Roy’s arrival, St. Paul’s has upgraded the church, liturgical items, put a new roof on the replica church, renovated the church hall and painted the rectory. All of the work was financed by parish fundraisers, Mission Council, good friends and generous benefactors. This fall, parishioners raised $2,000 towards the church insurance bill by volunteering with a local catering company. Earlier in the year, they added another $1,000 by hosting a giant garage sale.
“Father Roy makes us really work,” says Potts with a laugh. “All of what we have is through fundraising. We’re not a rich reserve, but we take a lot of pride in what we have.”
Like Fr. Roy, Potts is pleased that 19 Piikani children received First Communion at St. Paul’s in 2018. Another four were confirmed by Bishop William McGrattan in 2019. With time, Potts is hopeful more people will bring their children to mass and receive the sacraments. “We need parents to be really taking responsibility for teaching their own children the importance of Christianity.”
Her comments mirror Deacon Thomas O’Toole’s thoughts about his work at St. Paul’s. O’Toole, who also serves as a deacon at St. Peter’s in northwest Calgary, admits some might note the differences between the parishes he serves, one in a First Nation community of 3,500 people, the other in a suburban neighbourhood of Alberta’s largest city.
O’Toole focuses on the similarities. He hopes parishioners at both churches “grow together in love for Jesus, Mary and Joseph such that they will be a light for others.” Like Potts, he also wants Catholics “to engage with the sacraments and come to know the great love God has for us.”
For Fr. Roy, a willingness to be a witness of Christ’s love sometimes means inviting locals, including some homeless men, to share a meal with him at the rectory. He also takes homeless men with him when he participates in an annual highway cleanup day and offers a hot meal in exchange for their labour and company. “As far as I know, our parish is the only parish that goes for highway cleanup with their pastor and the deacon,” says Fr. Roy.
Drop by drop, a river forms
That same spirit of sharing what you have prompted Potts to suggest an addition to this year’s Christmas Eve mass. Earlier in the year, Fr. Roy gave jars to parishioners. Since then, each family has “put coins in there and at midnight mass they can put their jars at the crib,” says Potts.
The offerings, made with love and humility, show the community’s love of Christ and its appreciation for their church. “The sacred rituals and the holy place are so dear to their hearts,” says Fr. Roy.
The little country church he shepherds also hosts AA meetings, gospel music nights and interdenominational healing services. Plans are underway to restore and preserve the Our Lady of Lourdes grotto built at the residential school some 75 years ago. Every year, St. Paul’s holds an outdoor mass at that grotto, which many locals visit as a pilgrimage. The annual mass attracts residential school survivors who attended Catholic and Anglican schools in the area.
Fr. Roy is hopeful that recent changes at St. Paul’s are evidence of what Pope Francis has called the Church to do. Speaking at the closing mass of the Amazon Synod held in October, the Pope said, “how many times, even in the Church, have the voices of the poor not been heard and perhaps scoffed at or silenced because they are inconvenient.”
Reflecting on his time at St. Paul’s, Fr. Roy says faith and fellowship are fueling positive change at Piikani Nation. “Drop by drop, it’s becoming a river.”
Written by Joy Gregory for Faithfully
Photos submitted by St. Paul's in Brocket.
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers