480 Signal Rd. Fort McMurray AB, T9H 4R7 | 780-791-4305
HISTORY OF ST. PAUL’S PARISH
The history of St. Paul’s parish is linked very closely to that of St. John the Baptist Church, Fort McMurray’s original parish located in the community’s lower townsite.
The history of Catholicism in the region dates back to 1847, when Fr. Alexandre Taché, omi, future Archbishop of St. Boniface, arrived in Fort Chipewyan. He was the first Roman Catholic priest to travel in the Fort McMurray area. Coming over the famous Methye Portage, he was the forerunner of many Oblate Missionaries who would go through Fort McMurray on their way in and out of the North.
Visiting missionaries from Fort Chipewyan started to serve Catholics in this region in 1853: Cree and Chipewyan, Métis and others. Travel was by dog team and snow shoes in winter and York boat and canoe in the summer until 1884 when steamboats began to navigate the Athabasca River. Fr. L. Croisé, omi established a permanent mission in Fort McKay in 1904 and visited Fort McMurray regularly until 1911 when the decision was made to build a mission chapel in Fort McMurray.
In 1914, a two story log mission chapel with a seating capacity of 100 was built, a replica of the Fort McKay mission building. The lower floor was used as the chapel, the upper floor for the missionary’s living quarters. The young parish adopted St. John the Baptist as their patron saint because of their desire to imitate St. John the Baptist in being a “herald of Christ.” Fr. Adolphe Laffont, omi was the first residing priest, from 1914 to 1929. In 1914, there were twenty-one baptisms, five marriages and one funeral.
Over the decades, different versions of St. John the Baptist church were built until the current church building on Hospital Street was officially opened by Bishop Paul Piché omi on June 7, 1970.
As the 1970s progressed, St. John the Baptist was becoming less a mission parish and more of a city parish and the decision was made to transfer Fort McMurray from the Diocese of MacKenzie-Fort Smith to the Diocese of St. Paul. In 1978, Fr. Robert Poulin was the first diocesan priest from St. Paul to join the Oblate Fathers as part of the parish staff. In 1979, the Parish in Fort McMurray and the missions of Fort McKay, Janvier and Conklin were transferred to the Diocese of St. Paul.
For several years the population in the community increased and as Sunday Mass was celebrated in several schools to accommodate the growing numbers, the decision was made to establish a second parish in Fort McMurray.
The result was St. Paul’s Parish, located on Signal Road in the Thickwood neighbourhood.
St. Paul’s was officially opened and blessed by Bishop Raymond Roy on November 23, 1980. Even though a second church was built, the two churches continued to function as one parish.
In 1981 the parish team began to take on a new shape. It included two Oblate Fathers, an Oblate Brother, a diocesan priest, and two sisters, including Sister Mary Phillips, a Sister of Service. As the 1980s drew to a close, pastoral responsibilities included Fort McMurray with two churches: St. John the Baptist and St. Paul, the communities of St. Gabriel in Janvier, St. Vincent Ferrier in Conklin, and St. Julien in Fort MacKay and the occasional service in Anzac. Even though it was in the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith, as of September 2006 the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Fort Chipewyan was added to parish responsibilities, with a formal transfer to the Diocese of St. Paul occurring in December 2012.
In 2013, Bishop Paul Terrio announced that the two Fort McMurray churches would become two separate parishes effective August 01, 2014. While there had been some plans in previous years to establish one “super parish,” it is Bishop Terrio’s vision that the parishes would remain relatively small enough that the parish priests would know the names of their parishioners and the churches would maintain a welcoming and friendly character.When St. Paul’s was established as its own parish, it also took responsibility for the Fort Chipewyan and Fort McKay Missions. St. Paul’s Parish also ministers to the elementary schools north of the bridge and Fr. Mercredi High School.
CATHOLICISM IN HEALTH & EDUCATION
There is a rich history of the Catholic Church’s involvement in healthcare and education in the region as well. In 1937 a hospital was begun and inaugurated on May 28, 1938 by Bishop Gabriel Breynat, omi, under the care of the Grey Nuns. Sister Nadeau sgm was the first Superior of the Grey Nuns. This hospital had 25 beds and 10 bassinets. The St. Gabriel Hospital operated for 22 years (1937-1959) without any government support. The hospital was closed in 1970 and the property sold in 1972.
The St. John’s School District, the precursor to the Fort McMurray Catholic School District, was formed on January 1, 1936, and included the settlements of Fort McMurray and Waterways. A loan of $5,600 from Bishop Gabriel Breynat, omi was made to the District for the erection and equipment of its first school. That year, the enrollment was 43 students. In 1950 two classrooms were added to St. John’s School to accommodate 107 students. Besides dedicated lay teachers, the Grey Nuns of Montreal provided two teachers from 1949 until their departure from Fort McMurray in 1972. The Sisters of St. Martha arrived in 1975 and spent 18 years teaching. Over the years, the Sisters of Service, the Sisters of Assumption and the Holy Cross Sisters have provided teachers to the schools and a religious presence in the parish. Today, the Fort McMurray Catholic School District consists of ten Elementary Schools (K to 6) and two Junior Senior High Schools (7 to 12) with nearly seven thousand students enrolled. There is also a Catholic Francophone school, Ecole Boréal.
Note: Parts of historical information courtesy of St. John the Baptist parish website. Learn more here.