Fr. Susai Jesu meeting Pope Francis

Edmonton Indigenous parish will be ready for Pope

  • June 29, 2022

The church will be ready because the Church is ready — ready for Pope Francis and ready for reconciliation.

In this case, the small-c church is Sacred Heart National Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton. The 1913 French Gothic Revival churchwas badly damaged in 2020 by a fire, which was started by mishandled smudging materials. Artists and engineers have been hard at work ensuring that repair and reconstruction will be complete in time for Pope Francis’ visit July 25.

The big-C Church, of course, is the Catholic Church under the unifying mantle of the Holy Father and his vision of synodal Catholicism.

“Here comes Pope Francis, using the words ‘synodal path, listening.’ Listening is the first thing,” Sacred Heart pastor Fr. Susai Jesu told The Catholic Register.

For Indigenous parishioners at Sacred Heart, synodality is not some vague, abstract theological concept. For Indigenous Catholics a synodal Church is the only Church capable of reconciliation, Jesu said.

“What listening does is show that their words matter, their lives matter. Their presence is worthy, it matters,” said the Oblate priest. 

Synodality and consultation reverses the entire dynamic of residential schools, he explained.

“I often hear, ‘We were told… We were not consulted. As children we were told, dress this way, do that way,’ ” said Jesu, who served remote Indigenous communities of Pelican Narrows and Sandy Bay in northern Saskatchewan before taking up his post in Edmonton.

As pastor to people who remember the Church as a place where they were told but not heard, Jesu has embraced synodality in every aspect of his job.

“Consultation with the elders, the parish council, finance committee, pastoral committee — that’s how my time is spent,” he explained.

During the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sacred Heart’s councils and committees had to be split to fit limits on the size of gatherings. But twice as many meetings has not deterred them, or slowed down the rebuilding process. Jesu guarantees the church will be ship-shape and ready to host Pope Francis a week before the Pope, dignitaries, the global press and Indigenous pilgrims from across Canada arrive. 

The fire two years ago turns out to be an occasion to reconceive Sacred Heart architecturally for its current mission as the spiritual home of Indigenous Canadians and of a marginalized, impoverished urban population.

“People who are choosing this place, they know this is what the Pope would have,” Jesu said. “The Pope loves the poor. The Pope loves children. The Pope loves sick people. The Pope loves the handicapped. The Pope loves immigrants.”

If on a Sunday morning Mass is not sedate, solemn and orderly, that’s OK.

“The truth is that this is not just an Indigenous parish, but a ministry that is being given to the homeless, the addicted, the less fortunate,” he said.

However, the Indigenous character will not be hidden in the renovated church. Doors with medicine wheels and eagles on the outside. Stained glass with Indigenous images inside and out. Four teepee poles soaring above the sanctuary inside, and another teepee protecting the body of Christ in the tabernacle will seamlessly blend Indigenous spirituality and Catholic theology.

“John 1:14 says the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. That is the centre of Indigenous spirituality,” said Jesu. “God who loved Jesus, who loves us, sent Jesus in the Indigenous way of Jesus being born in the teepee.”

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