Sacred Heart First Peoples Church serves the Indigenous community in Edmonton. Photo by Lincoln Ho

Parish built on foundation of healing

By 
  • June 20, 2020

OTTAWA -- Trust and respect. It is easy to say, but hasn’t always been easy to follow during the long history of the Catholic Church and Canada’s Indigenous communities.

But a parish that has been operating for years in Edmonton designed to specifically create that trust and respect is now, as one parishioner says, is “going above and beyond” in an effort to heal the relationship.

“It is a matter of reaching a respectful relationship,” said Fr. Susai Jesu of the Sacred Heart First Peoples Church.

“We are all one family and we need to show respect for everybody,” said Susai, who is originally from India but who has immersed himself in the history of the Catholic Church in Canada and its relationship with Indigenous communities since coming to this country in 2007 after being invited by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

Susai learned to speak Cree in his first Canadian assignment with the Indigenous community in Pelican Narrows, Sask. He came to Sacred Heart in 2017, a year after becoming a Canadian citizen.

“To be honest, I did not think I must go to Canada,” he said. “But when I was invited to come to Canada I studied and learned and I very much wanted to work with the First Nations and through God’s providence and God’s grace I have found my place.”

The special focus of the Sacred Heart Church of First Peoples as a national church for First Peoples evolved from a 1991 decision by the Archbishop of Edmonton at the time, Joseph MacNeil, who said the church would become a First Nations, Metis and Inuit parish under the direction of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. It was the first Catholic church in Canada with that special mandate, and has taken its connection to Indigenous communities to heart by featuring native art, smudging ceremonies and now has a tabernacle that is within a teepee.

While Susai has been the pastor at Sacred Heart since 2017, he acknowledges that it took a good five to six months for him to be accepted at the church, especially as his appointment came after a very popular and long serving pastor left on sabbatical.

“That is only natural when somebody new comes in,” Susai said.

Former pastor Jim Holland served at Sacred Heart from 1995 to 2017, and he was inducted to the Alberta Order of Excellence in 2017. When he was replaced, there were those in the Sacred Heart Church community who said they would no longer attend the church.

But Elder Fernie Marty said Susai’s charisma and the fact that he cares enough about Canada’s First Peoples to learn how to speak Cree has endeared him to the community.

“There were some people who said they would leave who were followers of Jim Holland, but I think most have come back and are quite happy with Fr. Susai,” Marty said. “We did lose some people, but we have a lot of new people. When we could attend services before the COVID situation the Masses, especially on the weekend, are always packed.

“It is a very unique church,” Marty said. “We had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and Sacred Heart has been very accepting and has gone above and beyond that in addressing the issues raised by the TRC.

“It is a church that is not only for the Edmonton area but also for a lot of communities that are quite far away and remote and we have a lot of people who come here from up north when they have to come to Edmonton for health services or other things and they attend this church when they are here. It is very welcoming to everyone.”

While churches in Alberta have been re-opening since June 1, Sacred Heart was one of the first to go online when public health directives shuttered places of worship.

Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops communications director Lisa Gall said the efforts of Sacred Heart to meet the needs of Indigenous communities during the COVID-19 pandemic has been very well-received.

“It’s clearly a welcome initiative and his audience has increased tenfold. His virtual weekday services reach more than 3,000 viewers daily, and Sunday Mass has had as many as 7,000 viewers,” Gall said.

Susai praises the leadership of Edmonton’s archdiocese for its reconciliation efforts and he said Archbishop Richard Smith has shown an eagerness to learn First Nations customs and how those customs of spirituality are in line with Catholic teachings.

“Our archbishop is very open to learning all he can, and that is very important,” he said.

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