Where faith melds with French populace

Families flock to 80-year-old parish
Graeme Morton, Calgary Herald

Sainte-Famille, Calgary’s Francophone Roman Catholic parish, can easily be missed amid the crush of construction fences and flock of towering cranes that symbolize the inner-city boom.

But the parish, ensconced between a ‘Red Mile’ convenience store and an apartment block on 5th St. S.W., is celebrating its 80th anniversary of continuous worship this weekend.

A celebratory mass, led by a team of five priests, and a parish dinner were held last night to mark the occasion
“For a small parish like ours, 80 years is quite an accomplishment,” says Claire Lamarre, president of the Sainte-Famille parish council.

The first recorded mass in Saint-Famille’s history was celebrated on Oct. 14, 1928, with the Francophone congregation worshipping in a number of locales in the southwest Mission neighbourhood in the decades that followed. Their current chapel was opened in 1964 and features a dramatic tableau by Robert Oldrich behind the altar and a crucifix carved from poplar wood harvested from an island in the Bow River.

Lamarre, who has been a member of the Sainte-Famille parish for more than 30 years, says the locale has its pros and cons in building a spiritual community.

“The Francophone population in Calgary is still fairly modest by comparison to others. But it’s also growing with the number of families who are enrolling their children into French Immersion education,” says Lamarre.

“The downside is that some people have to drive a long distance to come downtown. We draw parishioners from as far away as Bearspaw and Airdrie.”

Lamarre says the church’s prime location, nestled on the southern edge of the downtown core in a busy area that mixes retail with higher-density housing, must be tempting for developers.

“But we’re not planning to go anywhere. Because of the small size of our congregation, this parish and this church were built by a lot of hard work, a lot of bingos and bake sales,” says Lamarre.

Like any religious community, Sainte-Famille has had its highs and lows in membership.

“We had a difficult time about five years ago when we didn’t have a resident priest, but people persevered,” says Lamarre.

Sainte-Famille welcomed its new priest, Father Noel Farman in July, who took over the parish reins from the retiring Father Gilles Gauthier. Farman brings a fascinating background to his new posting. He was born into a large family within a 10-minute walk of the ancient walls of Nineveh, located near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Once the hub of the ancient Assyrian civilization, Nineveh is described in the Old Testament book of Jonah as “a large, great city.”

Farman entered a Dominican Catholic seminary near his home at age 12 and began his long road toward full ordination as a priest, which took place in 2004.

“The Chaldean Catholic tradition in that area of the Middle East has a very long history,” says Farman.

At seminary, he became proficient in French as well as his first two languages of Arabic and Aramaic. Farman now is also fluent in English “and I have some German and Italian as well.”

Farman has juggled his passion for pastoral work with a talent for journalism, spearheading an award-winning Iraqi Catholic magazine for 10 years.

In the Chaldean Catholic tradition, priests are allowed to be married. Farman and his wife have two daughters, one son and one grandchild.

After parish postings in Kurdistan and Syria, Farman and his family came to Canada in April, 2006, first ministering to a small Chaldean Catholic community in Saskatoon, then commuting between the Saskatchewan city and Calgary
Since his arrival here, Farman is fostering supportive links with other French-speaking priests within the Calgary Catholic diocese, which covers a wide swath of southern Alberta.

“We’re very happy to have him,” Lamarre says of Farman. “We have about 200 families in the parish now and we’ve been encouraged to see a number of young families joining us in recent months.”

Farman says many French-speaking newcomers to Calgary are both surprised and delighted to find a Francophone parish in which to worship.

“It’s a venue where people can practice their French while being faithful to their religion,” says Farman, who notes Sainte-Famille is drawing new Calgarians who hail from Africa and the Middle East.

“I feel very welcome here,” says Farman. “But I always tell people that priests come and go during the history of a parish. Christ and the community of people are the constants.”

Last night’s anniversary celebration mass was followed by a community meal and an evening of entertainment.

Saint-Famille is located at 1719 5 St. S.W.