December 20, 2010
CHRIS MILLER
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

The three faith groups share the same problem. They require larger worship facilities to accommodate growing congregations.

Fort McMurray has one Roman Catholic parish with two churches, St. John the Baptist and St. Paul, which were built 40 and 30 years ago respectively.

“From that time to today, Fort McMurray’s population has almost tripled, from 35,000 to almost 100,000 people. We need a bigger facility to accommodate our many parish activities and so on,” said Father Paul Thekkanath, who pastors the two churches.

“We cannot incorporate any pastoral aspects or family-oriented programs or children’s liturgy in a better way because neither facility is big enough.”

Thekkanath, a Carmelite of Mary Immaculate, said the evangelicals and Muslims were also seeking land.

“Our three faith groups were all looking for property for future development,” said Glen Forsberg, senior pastor at McMurray Gospel Assembly.

“The province owns all of the land around here. They didn’t want to deal with the different faith groups individually, and wanted them to partner together.”

A consortium was formed, with representatives from St. John the Baptist Parish, McMurray Gospel Assembly and Markaz-Ul-Islam.

“There were some struggles in the beginning because each group comes from a different perspective,” said Thekkanath.

HARMONY PREVAILS

“They all grew together. There were doubts in the beginning that it wouldn’t work, that they couldn’t put aside their differences and work together as one group to attain their goals.”

But interfaith harmony prevailed. The provincial government released 26 acres for the group in Abrams Land, an area in the city’s Dickinsfield area.

“Our church and the Catholic church have been looking for land for about 11 years now, so it’s been a long process for all of us. But since we formed this consortium, it helped speed things up,” said Forsberg.

The Gospel Assembly’s current facility seats about 400 people, with three services per weekend. They have plans for a Christian community centre with a sanctuary, worship site, commercial kitchen, seniors’ residence and space for their various ministries.

The Catholics will eventually open St. Paul’s Parish at the new site on Abrams Land. They want a design similar to that of Holy Trinity Church in Spruce Grove-Stony Plain, with seating for about 1,000.

Markaz-Ul-Islam’s mosque was completed in 1991. It is the most northern mosque in the world after Alaska and Northwest Territories. More than 600 Muslim families live in Fort McMurray.

Recently they have been renting a school gym for worship services because their mosque is too small to accommodate everybody. Their New Islamic Centre will include a mosque and a school.

“This is a great model for Canada and in other cities, showing it is possible for different faith groups to work together. Fort McMurray can be a model in a way for that purpose. Someday when you walk onto that land, you’re going to see a mosque, a Catholic church and a Protestant church all standing corner to corner,” said Thekkanath.

ECUMENICAL COOPERATION

The city’s Christian churches have always had a sense of caring for one another, Forsberg said. That cooperation has been amplified by working with a non-Christian group.

“It’s been quite an achievement. There have been very good relationships, and it’s gone in a harmonious way. The three faith groups have worked together very well. I think it’s a phenomenal story in our culture of war,” said Forsberg.

He envisions Abrams Land as an all-inclusive neighbourhood, a place for the whole community, including seniors and youth. Ten acres was set aside for a 100-bed continuing care facility that’s expected to open within two years. The municipality also plans to build a recreation centre there.

Development of water, sewer, roads, streetlights and other amenities is estimated to take from 18 to 24 months. After that, the individual faith groups will develop at their own pace, likely in phases over many years.