January 24, 2011
Fr. Joseph McGrane, first pastor of St. Angela Merici Parish, seen on a trip to Jerusalem

WCR FILE PHOTO

Fr. Joseph McGrane, first pastor of St. Angela Merici Parish, seen on a trip to Jerusalem

CHRIS MILLER
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

EDMONTON — Any written account of Father Joseph McGrane appears jumpy. That's because he lived such an eventful life, always pressing forward into something new, something unpredictable.

The multi-talented priest was an international traveller, ham radio operator, boat builder, printer, magician and actor, and his favourite TV show was Coronation Street.

In the Sept. 23, 1965 issue of the WCR, reporter Frank Dolphin wrote of McGrane: "Don't be too surprised if you see him in TV coverage of the first flight to the moon, stepping down ahead of the astronauts, then hurrying back to write a book. Father McGrane is that kind of man!"

McGrane was the first pastor at St. Angela Merici Parish, which celebrates its 50th anniversary Jan. 30. Planned is an 11 a.m. Mass with Archbishop Richard Smith presiding. Following is a reception at Wellington Hall, a community centre across from the church.

For the parish's one-year anniversary, McGrane printed a commemorative booklet. He wrote in his message that a church is the noblest expression of mankind's ideals. "Mankind writes its history in the buildings it makes . . . though man writes his history clearly in every building he erects, in none does he write so personally and intimately as in his churches."

LIFE ENRICHED

The message resounds well with Lina Bjur, a church secretary who has enjoyed working with about a dozen priests there for more than 25 years.

A man of many interests, Fr. McGrane seen running an old Linotype machine for the Western Catholic.

WCR FILE PHOTO

A man of many interests, Fr. McGrane seen running an old Linotype machine for the Western Catholic.

Describing her job as a wonderful learning experience, Bjur said, "It has enriched my life and challenged me as a person and the ministry that I work in."

"The parish goes on and on and on and nothing monumental happens, but then one day you realize 50 years have passed," said Earl Cornfield, a St. Angela Merici parishioner since Day One.

St. Angela Merici is a multigenerational church, attended by many original parishioners, as well as their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. A few still remember McGrane, including Cornfield, who described him as a rigid disciplinarian.

"Collections were decreasing. He told the parishioners that if collections don't pick up, he would post at the back of the church what everybody gave," said Cornfield. "The next week, the collection basket was overflowing."

Born in Manchester, England in 1902, McGrane was of Irish descent. He apprenticed in his father's printing establishment. He always had a penchant for ships and the sea. In March 1918 he joined the Coastguard Service of the Royal Navy. After the war, his family moved to Canada.

NEWSPAPER WORK

By the spring of 1920, McGrane returned to newspaper work, employed as a printer and part-time editorial writer at the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.

WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER

Students at St. Angela School painted this mural on the back of St. Angela’s Parish rectory.

He came to Edmonton in 1926, and was a member of the first class to complete his whole course of philosophy and theology after the Edmonton Archdiocese took over St. Joseph Seminary.

After his 1933 ordination, his first appointment was in Wainwright, where he acted as curate and assisted in the production of the Western Catholic, forerunner to the WCR, which was then printed in Wainwright.

After two years there, he was appointed parish priest in Irma, where he stayed until March 1940. Then he was sent to Lac La Biche as parish priest, serving there for 20 years. He also served as priest at Calmar-Devon, and was chaplain to the 19th Alberta Dragoons during the Second World War.

After a failed attempt in 1951, McGrane and four sea cadets on a 32-foot boat sailed on the North Saskatchewan River from Edmonton to Prince Albert, Sask.

In 1961, a new district by the name of Wellington was springing up from a muddy swamp in Edmonton. The streets were barely surveyed when Archbishop Anthony Jordan acquired some land, valued at about $12,000, to build a new church. With a mortgage of $113,000, the church was built in one summer on mostly volunteer labour.

McGrane was named its first pastor.

HAM RADIO

He was a ham radio operator, and Cornfield reminisced that he left his ham radio turned on at times, and parishioners could hear what was playing.

"You'd go there for Mass and when Mass got quiet, you could hear Ernest Manning's Back to the Bible Hour very faintly. It was an evangelist radio program, and it was funny that it would be playing at our church," said Cornfield.

In 1965, he wrote, designed, typeset and printed a colourful book, Terra Santa, about his trip to the Holy Land.

He was a hit with children, as he performed feats of magic. The schoolchildren familiar with McGrane knew him best as "The Perplexing Padre," as he demonstrated his faster-than-the-eye use of golf balls to illustrate the Holy Trinity. He did magic shows as church fundraisers.

Retiring from active priesthood in 1974, McGrane died Oct. 13, 1976 at age 74, following a lengthy illness.

"He was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery. I was at his funeral and they had a flag draped over his coffin. There wasn't any wind or didn't appear to be any wind, but the flag rose off from the coffin.

"I said to my wife, 'He's up to his old magic again,'" said Cornfield.