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The new Sacred Heart Church in Strathmore, Alta., set to open next year, will be a retrofitted IGA store in the town’s downtown. Courtesy Peake Design Group
  • April 14, 2023

Nettie Hendricks began to call Strathmore, Alta., home in 1960.

She knows the Catholic history in a prairie community just east of Calgary that blossomed from a tiny hamlet with hundreds of people to a bustling town with a populace of over 15,000.

Her late father, Gerry Valckx, played an instrumental role in building the original Sacred Heart Parish, which was solemnly dedicated and blessed on June 28, 1953. Specifically, Hendricks said her father helped install the first church bell.

Hendricks grew up, married her husband Michael, celebrated the sacraments of all her children, buried her parents and buried a child at Sacred Heart.

Unfortunately, in 2007, the congregation was devastated by difficult news: The church and the rectory were deemed to be unsafe buildings for the long term. The choice was made to close Sacred Heart Parish in 2008.

In a testament to the strength of Strathmore’s Catholics, the parish community persevered through this tribulation. Liturgical services moved from the church into the gymnasium of Holy Cross Collegiate, which remains the reality to this day, more than 15 years later.

But in 2024, a new, uplifting chapter is set to be written in the Sacred Heart Parish history. Thanks to the vision of parishioners, the steadfast guidance of pastors and the ingenuity of a team of architects, construction of a new church is expected to be complete.

“It’s been my passion since our parish was closed to carry on that legacy for my Mom and Dad, and to say, ‘they didn’t do all of this to build this community in vain,’ ” said Hendricks, the chair of the parish fundraising committee. “The people in my generation are responsible that this building is there for the next generations.”

Uniquely, the new Sacred Heart will come to life via a retrofitting of a closed 16,000 sq. ft. IGA supermarket, a mere block away from the high school and Sacred Heart Academy elementary school.

How did this community of believers arrive at this moment? A moment where they are on the cusp of restoring a distinctive Catholic place of worship in a town bereft of one for over a decade-and-a-half?

It did not happen overnight. Many years of planning and fundraising were required to bear this fruit.

Tomás Rochford arrived in Strathmore to teach at Holy Cross Collegiate in the autumn of 2008. He never had the opportunity to experience the original Sacred Heart Parish. The religion and media educator recalled there was a “struggle for many years” in determining how the parish could move forward.

Eventually, the passage of time illuminated to the parish community at large that a new home would ensure the light of Catholicism would remain, and perhaps continue to grow, in the prairie town for years to come.

In 2013, a fundraising committee was founded under the spiritual direction of then pastor Fr. Wojciech Jarzecki. This team’s efforts supplied enough confidence to take the next step by instituting an official parish building committee in the fall of 2015.

Difficult financial realities confronted the committee immediately. It became manifestly clear building a church from scratch would not be viable. In 2016, Rochford and fellow committee members floated an innovative idea.

“There were two old grocery stores that were right downtown that came up for sale,” said Rochford. “The old IGA building was one of them. I thought, ‘you know what? Why don’t we take this modern block of a building and turn it into a beautiful place where we can worship Jesus Christ?’ ”

Rochford sensed the possibility as his research revealed American infrastructure teams completing similar feats. St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Holy Trinity Church in Westminster, Colorado, inspired Rochford’s notion.

On June 21, 2016, a large invitational event was hosted so the committee could float this idea to the parish. The idea was resoundingly acclaimed. By Nov. 6 of that year, Jarzecki blessed the building as the future Sacred Heart Church.

A vision document written by the building committee stated the church “should be in stylistic continuity with the great tradition of Catholic Church architecture, but made using the best construction techniques and materials available today.” And “the interior architectural style of the church that is preferred is of a modern Romanesque style, with the use of arches, columns (representative of the Apostles who hold up the Church — Galatians 2:9), and other Romanesque elements where possible and fitting.”

In 2017, DI & GP Architecture, led by designer Jun Lee, whom Rochford said is a “faithful practising Catholic,” was hired for the job. Lee requested Peake Design Group to lend its services as it had collaborated with him on previous assignments for the Diocese of Calgary.

The appeal of such an assignment was instant to Ken Staves, the principal of Peake Design Group.

“(You are) taking a derelict old building without a current or new purpose or use and are looking at it through a completely different lens and seeing the potential for a place of worship,” said Staves. “This is largely because of, call it the insight of the local parish and community members.

“I think the nave is going to be a very exciting aspect of this project. There are others for sure, but I think it is going to take people’s breath away.”

Beyond the nave, the new Sacred Heart Church will boast a chapel named after St. Pope John Paul II, a church hall that can accommodate around 300 people, a community kitchen, multiple meeting rooms with A/V capabilities, office space for priests and deacons, a working space for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and a parish library.

The building committee wrote that “we see the location of the new church as a sign of God’s loving providence.” Rochford elaborated why.

“Our town like many others has been trying to do downtown revitalization for many years,” he said. “It is right in the middle near our Catholic schools. There are medical clinics, housing and the opportunity for a soup kitchen in that area. It is the perfect place for the church to be for corporal works of mercy and spiritual works of mercy. You may say it’s a little goofy but it’s the pearl on the prairie. It’s right in the centre, the beating heart of our small town.”

Roof construction is poised to begin starting in June and the work is expected to take approximately 10 months. Meanwhile, Hendricks and the fundraising team are drawing ever closer to achieving the fundraising goal of $6.1 million. Thus far they have raised $4.3 million.

The community has held two 50/50 raffles (a third one is on deck), five annual golf tournaments, a slew of dinner and auction nights and serving beer at Strathmore’s annual rodeo. Hendricks said parishioners are completing a pledge form that is due by May that will secure some funding. The hopes are to make up the shortfall by September.

The story of the Sacred Heart Parish community has inspired donations from outside the area. Hendricks said Canadian Catholics from coast to coast are most welcome to help an effort that will bolster Catholicism as a whole.

“Sometimes we need to look at our own backyard where we can also be missionaries,” said Hendricks. “This is something that builds Canada into becoming a stronger Christian country.”

Fr. Tomy Manjaly, the pastor since August 2020, said he has been continually amazed by the effervescent energy of his churchgoers.

“The parishioners are the backbone of the parish and they are all doing amazing work. They are so committed to this cause. “

Manjaly expressed to Bishop William McGrattan that he had no knowledge on how to build a church before assuming this post.

“He said, ‘Tomy, you are there to build a community. Once you have the community, the church will be built.’ I have seen that over the past two years. Everyone is speaking with one voice and they are all united over the goal,” said Manjaly.

In perhaps another sign of God’s providence, the congregation that will enter the new Sacred Heart Parish in 2024 will be larger than the one that exited the original one in 2008. The new parish is likely to have more than 500 families, two-and-a-half times what the congregation stood at when it closed.

“When I go to other parishes on a Sunday I see a lot of white hair,” said Hendricks. “This parish is just vibrant with all these young families and it is so good to see. Nobody is turning around and giving someone the look because their child is crying. We all have embraced that youthfulness. We recognize that in order to grow, that is who we are building the church for. This is a legacy we can pass to them.”

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