Course Work

Married priest ordained in the face of tragedy

Posted on by

Dec. 10, 2013 – As a married man with three children, Father Stephen Smith never imagined being ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. But on July 14, 2002, he was welcomed to the church with open arms.

Smith had been ordained as an Anglican priest in 1984 after attending seminary school for eight years. During his schooling Smith met his wife Marilyn, and the couple was married in 1986. Soon afterward they became parents to Timothy, Terry, and Kathryn.

The Anglican pastor had never anticipated converting to Catholicism. But one night in 1997, while working on his weekly sermons, Smith confided to Marilyn that his heart felt uneasy. He felt as though he was being tugged in a different direction and he was not sure what that was, or why.

“Marilyn just looked at me and said, ‘Steve, it sounds like you want to be in the Catholic Church’,” Smith smiled.

“I knew right away that she was right. This had been growing in my heart for a long time.”

At that time, Smith did not consider becoming a Catholic priest. He was married with three children, which went against celibacy vows of the church.

Becoming Roman Catholic, then, would mean leaving both the Anglican Church and priesthood to become a lay person in a new denomination. In the summer of 1999, Smith met with St. James Parish priest Father Jack Bastigal, to discuss the procedure for converting the entire family to Catholicism.

“We began the RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, and we were guided through the process of moving toward Catholic Church life,” Smith explained.

Then, in December 1999, tragedy struck the Smith family.

“My entire family was in a horrific accident just before Christmas. Marilyn was air lifted to Foothills with severe brain trauma and broken bones, and the kids were taken to Alberta Children’s Hospital with serious injuries.”

The children were released from hospital three days later, but Marilyn still had not regained consciousness.

Despite the anxiety and the stress the family faced, Smith decided to continue taking the RCIA classes.

“I needed to continue my journey, and my faith was stronger than ever. I was doing this for Marilyn,” Smith said.

Five months later, Marilyn received a day pass to leave the Foothills Hospital with her nurse and attend the Easter Vigil ceremony at St. James Parish in Okotoks, where the entire Smith family was baptized and welcomed into the Roman Catholic Church.

“Our conversion was a bit of a bumpy ride,” Smith said.

“What started out fairly normal grew into something entirely different.”

Their journey had just begun. Shortly before the Smiths became full members of the Roman Catholic Church, Bastigal had approached Smith to suggest he become a Catholic priest. Smith was shocked.

“I didn’t think it was remotely possible,” he exclaimed.

With Bastigal as sponsor and guide, Smith met with Bishop Frederick Henry of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary in February of 2000 and began the process of becoming a Roman Catholic priest. It took two years for Smith to be ordained. The long months of waiting included meeting with several priests in the Calgary area, completing paperwork, taking courses in Catholic theology, and training under Bastigal as a high school chaplain at Holy Trinity Academy in Okotoks.

Throughout the entire process, he was also dealing with moving his family from Calgary to Okotoks and helping them heal physically, emotionally, and mentally from the car accident.

“The journey became two-fold. I tended to Marilyn’s needs and recovery at the same time as I prepared for my vocation as a Catholic Church priest,” Smith related. “It was the end of Marilyn’s career and the beginning of a new one for me.”

In February 2002, Smith and Bastigal were summoned to the bishop’s Calgary office for a meeting. Smith’s documentation had been received and approved by Rome.

Smith was ordained quietly in a small ceremony at St. James Parish in Okotoks on a sunny Sunday afternoon in July 2002.

“It’s not that [my situation] is unusual in the church, but the media would turn it into something abnormal, which the Catholic Church wanted to avoid. So we kept it all under the radar.”

The community in Okotoks was accepting, although at first some found Smith’s situation odd in a traditional congregation. After some time, it became normal.

“I still meet people who aren’t sure how to react though,” Smith laughed. “Some say things like, ‘Oh, that’s all right,’ or ‘How’s that going for you?’

“And some say things like, ‘It’s about time the church moved forward’.”

In a second stroke of misfortune, Smith’s time as a full-time Roman Catholic celebrant was unexpectedly cut short when he became ill in 2009. One year later, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

The progression of the disease brought intense fatigue, which meant Smith had to handle stress differently and adjust his timetables and schedules to suit his fluctuating daily ability.

St. James Parish made him a dominical vicar, meaning he may perform Sunday Mass and special occasions such as weddings, funerals, or baptisms.

“I still visit homes, hospitals, and the hospice from time to time. I can’t be a 24 hours per day person in the church any more, but I’m still useful.”

After just ten years in his new calling, Smith now finds himself living the life of a retired priest. Every day is filled, but he is never as strictly scheduled as he used to be. Even with only one Mass to deliver every week or two, Smith must remain mindful of his intellectual and physical exertion, and is always careful to moderate his activity.

Mass preparations can take hours per week, with a minimum of 100 pages of reference materials to read and draw from, in addition to the constant processing of life experiences and current events.

“It’s a constant dialogue in your mind. And that can be tiring for someone like me.”

Although the schedule has changed, and the work is different, the retired Roman Catholic officiant still finds himself busy with church life and pondering the presence of God in everyday life.

“It’s not a career you retire from and just quit one day. Once you’re a priest, you’re always a priest.”

Priests are ordained for their entire lives, regardless of whether they step away from being full-time celebrants. In fact, according to Smith, some find themselves busier in retirement than in their clergy life, especially in cases where several officiants share a parish.

“There’s an old clergy joke,” Smith said with a smile.

“When a priest retires, he just goes out to pasture. That’s spelled pastor.”

Celebrating the power of the poppy

Posted on by

Nov. 19, 2013 – The Calgary Poppy Fund Campaign launched at the main court in Chinook Centre on Saturday, Oct. 25 to honour local past and present heroes.

The annual ceremony, which has been hosted by Chinook Centre for over 30 years, marked the beginning of the poppy campaign in Calgary, which aims to raise funds for local veterans.

Representatives from Scouts Canada, the Air, Sea, and Army Cadets, and the Royal Canadian Legion were led through Chinook Centre mall to the main court by bagpipers from the Calgary Scottish Society.

The colour guard and parade formed a wide circle around the court perimetre.

“We are pleased to host this fabulous and meaningful event each year,” said Peggy Lim, director of marketing for Chinook Centre.

“It’s an honour to have the ceremony here.”

Speeches by government officials and Legion members were followed by the recitation of John McCrae’s famous memorial poem, “In Flanders Fields.”

A rendition of “God Save the Queen” was played by members of the King’s Own Calgary Regiment Band and sung by the colour guard.

The ceremony attracted the attention of the public, unsuspecting shoppers who ventured into Chinook Centre and stumbled upon the service.

Hundreds of bystanders crowded behind the colour guard and pressed against the glass railing of the second level of the mall to take in the commemoration of fallen soldiers and witness the launch of Calgary’s poppy campaign.

Joey Bleviss, Legion member and Chief Administrative Officer of the Calgary Poppy Fund, explained that distributing poppies is one of the most important functions of the Royal Canadian Legion.

“The funds we raise help our local veterans, many of which either can’t get pensions at all or don’t receive much because of their disabilities,” Bleviss said.

“People need to remember that war doesn’t just kill people, it steals hearing, sight, limbs, and sometimes sanity.”

The money raised by the Calgary campaign helps local heroes who suffer from any of these ailments.

The funds are used for medical expenses and equipment, eye and dental care, food hampers and gift cards for groceries and other necessities, and home repairs.

Legion members hope to reach out to at least 1,000 veterans in need with the money raised from this year’s campaign.

Peacekeeping veteran Skip Saunders has been a member of the Legion for 32 years, and has been involved in the poppy campaign every year.

“Last year we raised over $2 million,” Saunders said proudly, wearing a box of the first of Calgary’s 2013 poppies around his neck for distribution to shoppers at the mall.

Saunders is honoured to provide poppies to the public each year and “create awareness.”

According to Bleviss, 927,000 poppies were dispersed throughout the city for the 2013 campaign.

“Imagine, if everyone who wore a poppy donated just a loonie, we would be at almost $1 million already,” Bleviss said.

“Now, considering many give more, and some less, we can usually bank on an average of $2 per poppy.

“That’s a good amount of money to help our vets.”

Visitors to Chinook Centre were not only able to make donations and receive poppies, but also to view the Legion’s memorial display.

“We are proud to house this exhibit in our main court,” said Lim.

“It draws a lot of public attention to an important part of our history, our present, and our future.”

The focal point of the tribute, a ten-foot large scroll, was inscribed with the words to McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.”

Commemorative wreaths and oversized poppies adorned the exhibit, and an imbedded video screen displayed the biography of McCrae and memorialized Canada’s recently fallen heroes.

The Remembrance Day exhibit remained in the main court at Chinook Centre from Oct. 25 to Nov. 12.

Voters in High River have tough decisions to make

Posted on by

Oct. 22, 2013 – The town of High River is politically charged as the 2013 civic elections approach, with an unprecedented 23 candidates for town council listed on the ballot for Mon. Oct. 21.

The surge in contenders for council positions is a result of the flood disaster of June 2013.

Facing a devastated town that needs to be rebuilt and revitalized, these 23 residents and business people are vying for council positions to help High River move forward.

Ken Braat, local realtor and community volunteer, decided to run for what he hopes will be a new type of town council that is more involved with both the community and the Town of High River staff.

“I want to be part of a council that stands up,” Braat said.

“We are in a position where we need a stronger council than ever before.”

Cathy Couey, long-time resident of High River, made the final decision to enter the race for council just two days before nominations closed.

Couey had been intending to run for a position on town council, but did not expect to enter the race until the 2016 elections.

“This community means everything to me,” Couey said.

“I felt that I need to be a part of the solution, and a part of bringing High River back.”

Candidates have mixed emotions regarding the number of nominees in the race for town council.

Some believe the number of candidates indicates the commitment of High River citizens to their town.

Others are concerned that, with so many names to choose from, voters may become overwhelmed at the polls and the vote may be watered down due to the large number of candidates.

Initially, Couey feared that interest in joining the municipal government would suffer after the flood.

She was pleased to see that the number of candidates had not only risen, but that there was such overwhelming response to the race.

“It shows there is still a passion for High River,” Couey said.

Braat, however, sees the number of candidates as a potential distraction for voters.

“There are so many choices,” Braat said.

“And many people have entered the race merely out of anger after the flood, which isn’t the right reason to run.”

While flood mitigation remains a major issue for most candidates, the restoration of High River, which is slated to take years to complete, is a chief concern.

The rebuilding of High River is a main component of the duties councillors will face in the upcoming term.

Among the immediate needs in the town are improvements and repairs to infrastructure, restoration of recreation and culture, and reconfiguration of the tax base.

“The council put together now will have a huge impact on where High River goes and what the future will be,” Couey said.

“The flood will definitely impact many of the decisions that need to be made and will always be in the back of our minds, but it will not be a focal point.”

With so many residences, attractions, and businesses ravaged by the flood, the town has a long road ahead to reestablish a strong business community and invite tourism back to High River.

“This council needs to decide what it is going to take to bring confidence back to our market,” Braat said.

“By putting up strong leaders with business sense and commitment, we can build High River back up.”

All candidates are excited for the opportunity to help restore the community they love and bring a clear and united front as town council to the residents of the town.

“If I win, I won’t settle for anything less than better than it ever was before,” Couey said.

Braat is prepared for a bumpy road if he is elected to council.

“Post-flood, this is going to be the ugliest and roughest council for some time in this town’s history,” Braat said.

The town council nominees eagerly await Monday evening, and the counting of ballots.

According to Braat, this will be a different election than ever before and the results are completely unpredictable.

“It used to be a popularity contest in this town,” Braat said.

“This year, there are more professionals and real leaders entered into the race.

And with 23 of us, this town has some very tough choices to make.”

High waters will not break high culture: Alberta Culture Days must go on

Posted on by

Sept. 30, 2013 – The flood waters of June 20, 2013 may have devastated High River, but the spirit of the town lives on through its vibrant arts community.

Alberta Culture Days, a Government of Alberta initiative, is an annual celebration of the rich arts and culture identity of the province held the last weekend of September. Communities and organizations plan various activities throughout Alberta.

High River typically boasts 30-50 events during Alberta Culture Days to celebrate its usually-lively arts community. This year, the ravaged town presents only six.

Arlene Westen-Evans, co-owner of Evanescence Gallery and Art Studio in High River, is in the process of rebuilding and reinventing her business in the wake of the flood. Repairs are estimated at $60,000 and the business is rebranding to house more functional pieces rather than luxurious works of art.

“It’s changed the vision of our business,” says Westen-Evans. “The new economic development of High River will have to do with comfort, home, and security.”

Despite the stress and work involved in recreating Evanescence, Westen-Evans did not hesitate to offer her event for Alberta Culture Days as originally planned. The studio is holding a “knit bombing,” in which Westen-Evans and a host of supporters are creating various knit pieces and hanging them throughout High River.

Due to Town bylaws, the knitting is limited to Evanescence and other private property. “But if a scarf ends up on the Emerson Statue downtown, I wouldn’t be offended,” laughs Westen-Evans. “We need to see how much we can put a cozy around this town.”

She hopes that the bombing will remind people that High River was once a bright place to be, in spite of negative connotations of the town post-flood. “This is a way of making a small mark and deliberately noting this period in our lives here,” she says.

M.J. Getkate, co-owner of Art Effects, also endured extensive damage to her framing studio and gallery during the flood. Art Effects is celebrating its grand re-opening for Alberta Culture Days. “Culture is still viable and an important part of our community,” Getkate explains. “Any opportunity we have to showcase and support it, we need to take advantage of.”

Artists gathered at Rotary Park in downtown High River are enthusiastic about the effect of their outdoor exhibits on the overall mood of the population. Annie Froese, owner of Art and Soul Gallery, perceives raising spirits among visitors to her gallery, recently re-opened in a temporary structure in the heart of the town.

“People are curious, people are supportive, people are here,” Froese says cheerfully. “We have missed our downtown, and this is a great way to begin our revitalization.”

Froese is joined by Calgary artist and friend Sharon Lynn Williams, who has participated in High River’s Alberta Culture Days celebrations for four years. Overwhelmed by the destruction she has witnessed in the town, Williams is inspired by the community’s ability to draw together and “continue to produce and celebrate art despite the devastation.”

As for Westen-Evans, she is determined to change the outlook in High River. “I want to rewrite the story,” she says. “It’s a story of resurrection. People need to know there is more to High River than a flood.”

1 2