WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Celebrating parishioners raise their voices in praise at Our Lady of the Assumption's 100th anniversary Mass.
In 1912, a year before the town of Sylvan Lake was incorporated, a tiny mission church was built on the hillside at what is now 5033-47A Ave. It was the first home of Our Lady of the Assumption Parish, which is now marking 100 years of existence.
Parishioners celebrated their parish's centennial at the church Aug. 26 with a Sunday Mass presided by Archbishop Richard Smith. Then they moved to the town's community centre for a catered lunch filled with history and entertainment.
Father Gabriel Udeh, the pastor for the past four years, described Our Lady of the Assumption as a vibrant parish that may become even more vibrant as more young families move into town.
In the past 15 years, the tourist town's population has increased from 5,000 to 12,000 and Udeh said the Catholic population has also gone up. Currently, more than 260 families are registered. It started with 20.
Since he arrived, Udeh has noticed an increase in lay involvement. "Things are changing and people are becoming more comfortable with volunteering for the parish," he said in an interview.
Two years ago the parish secured a piece of land for about $700,000 to build a new church and has already raised $300,000 to pay for the land, Udeh said.
A brief written history of the parish describes Our Lady of the Assumption as a "vibrant, ever-growing Catholic community offering the services of the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic Women's League, RCIA and CIC (Christian Initiation of Children), and youth programs."
Pastoral assistant Vivian Coderre says parishioners at Sylvan Lake are great stewards, always willing to help out with anything that is asked of them. "They are very gracious with their time, their talent and their treasure."
Still more participation is desired and so the parish pastoral council is working on a plan to get more people involved, said council chair Bob Osmond.
"If we want people to be involved, we have to invite them," he said. "We have to call them by name and tell them 'We need you to do this at this time.'"
Osmond, a retired teacher and school administrator, has lived and worked in many places across Canada and said the Catholic community of Sylvan Lake is one of the most open and welcoming communities in the country.
"I think that's part of why this kind of a function became so successful," he said of the centennial banquet.
What has the Catholic community in Sylvan Lake accomplished in the last 100 years? "Survival, I guess," Osmond said. "The fact that you get established and remain a going concern for 100 years is a big accomplishment."
Our Lady of the Assumption Parish is celebrating a centennial, but records show the history of the parish goes back to the turn of the century when French settlers began to arrive in the area. Several came directly from France and others from Quebec and the United States.
Father Henry Voisin, head of the Central Alberta mission of the Fathers of Ste. Marie of Tinchebray, began saying Mass for these settlers in 1904.
They used such places as Charles and Raymond Archambault's store, Adelard and Victoria Faucher's farm and the August Loquet and Frederic Gerard homestead cabins.
By 1912, the number of local Catholics had grown to the extent that a church was needed, Michael Dawe, curator of history at Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery, wrote in the Sylvan Lake News.
"Moreover, with the freewheeling pastimes often associated with a boomtown and a summer resort, Voisin wrote that 'The time had come to enliven the completely materialistic atmosphere by the salutary presence of a church.'"
In the spring of 1912, Alexander Loiselle donated a small piece of land, where the first church was built.
"One of the big Sylvan Lake windstorms struck in July and almost blew the little church to the ground," Dawe said in his article. "Fortunately, the workmen were able to quickly make repairs and finish the building."
Speaking at the banquet, parish historian Brian Inglis described the first church as modest and humble, built at Voisin's urging. The following year the congregation bought the two lots east of the church for $250.
Tinchebray Father Paul Chauvin became the first priest. The new church was dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption and the first Mass was celebrated on Sunday, Aug. 18, 1912. Chauvin served until 1915, when Voisin replaced him as pastor.
"The First World War was a very tough time for Sylvan Lake and the local Catholic church," wrote Dawe. "Many parishioners enlisted in the French, Belgian and Canadian armies and went overseas. Several never returned. With ensuing tough economic times, money became very scarce."
In 1923 the Tinchebray Fathers moved to Tisdale, Sask., and a Father Stacey from Woodstock, Ont. became the pastor at Sylvan Lake. Father Joseph MacDonald, resident priest at Sacred Heart in Red Deer, soon replaced him.
In 1927, conditions had improved enough that Sylvan Lake became a parish instead of a mission of Red Deer. The parish received financial help from the Catholic Church Extension Society at the time.
From 1929 to 1941 and from 1948 to 1951 Sylvan Lake had no resident priest and was again served from Red Deer.
In August 1963, Father J.O. Sullivan became the pastor and he immediately saw the need for a new church. In the fall of 1964, the old church was demolished and replaced with a much larger one. Archbishop Anthony Jordan blessed and dedicated the new building March 23, 1965.
In the early 1990s Our Lady of the Assumption Parish was amalgamated with St. Margaret in Rimbey and the missions of Bentley and Winfield – all parishes and missions served from Rimbey by one priest.
Inglis, the parish historian, noted that Father Sylvain Casavant, who served the Rimbey-Sylvan Lake area from 1994-99 "worked tirelessly toward the establishment of a Catholic school in Sylvan Lake." Mother Teresa School opened in 2000. A second Catholic school, Our Lady of the Rosary, was opened in 2007.
Johanna Dietrich, a parishioner since 1966, recalled with fondness the tenure of Father Michael Heffernan, who served from 1967 to 1976.
He was vibrant and charismatic and "the church was filled every Sunday" during his nine years as a pastor, the 85-year-old Dietrich said.
The priest had other gifts too. When he arrived, he faced a seemingly insurmountable debt on the church buildings. However he saw the mortgage retired two years before it was due.
Dietrich described Our Lady of the Assumption Parish as "vibrant, outgoing and tending to involve others in the work of the parish."
During her 44 years as a parish member she and her late husband Ed participated in many ministries. Dietrich has been in charge of altar servers at the parish for 30 years and still distributes Communion in lodges.
"I feel it's been to my advantage to participate in the parish," she said.