With vocations to the priesthood declining — and a call to renew their mission in Canada — the Oblates of Mary Immaculate are leaving St. Charles Parish in north Edmonton.
When Rev. Jack Herklotz celebrates his final Mass on July 14, it will end 40 years of Oblate ministry at St. Charles. A farewell celebration for Father Herklotz and Rev. Ed McSheffrey, the associate pastor, will be held following that final 7 p.m. Mass.
“In the last six years, we’ve lost over 80 of our Oblates through death, and had only one join,” said Herklotz, who has been pastor to St. Charles for the past three years.
“It’s a similar situation in other religious congregations — the vocations are diminishing. We’re lost a lot of our priests, but part of our mission is to establish parishes and then move on and start missions elsewhere — that’s our nature.”
Herklotz feels regretful at leaving behind the many friends he’s made, but just as sad is to see another parish in Alberta lose its Oblates as they have been part of the province since the 1800s.
“In the West, you’ll see it’s really touched by the history of the missionaries: Leduc, Lacombe, Vegreville, Legal, Grandin. The names of the Oblates are found everywhere. Just about all of Alberta’s parishes were run by the Oblates at one point,” he said.
“There is a great sadness right now. I know there are people who come to St. Charles precisely because the Oblates are here. Many of us feel tied to that history. It seems just as I was settled in and have gotten to know everybody, I’m asked to leave, but that’s the state of it. ”
When changes to the Oblates’ leadership were announced in January, the decision to leave St. Charles came about abruptly. In April, the Oblates asked the Archdiocese of Edmonton to take over the parish. On July 17, Rev. Marc Cramer and Rev. Robert Lee will become the new pastors at St. Charles.
“We were caught having to make some quick decisions,” said Rev. Ken Thorson, Provincial of the OMI Lacombe Province. “Typically we would have taken a bit longer in making that decision and gotten more feedback from the parish, but with the leadership changes, that time just wasn’t there.”
Through an initiative called “Renewing our life and mission” the Oblates are returning to their historical roots in Western Canada by focusing their ministry on Indigenous communities, particularly in urban areas and in the northern and Arctic regions of Canada.
The Oblates continue their presence at four Indigenous parishes in the Edmonton Archdiocese: Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton, Our Lady of Mercy in Enoch, St. Albert Parish, and the Lac Ste. Anne Parish. The Oblates will also continue their ministry at Holy Rosary and Our Lady Queen of Poland parishes in Edmonton.
St. Charles is one of many parishes the Oblates have turned over to dioceses in recent years. Since 2013, the Oblates have left 17 parishes across the country, but have also taken on an six additional parishes. The decisions are based both on the continued decline of their priests, as well as their renewed focus on ministering to indigenous communities, said Thorson.
Because of the crucial role the Oblates played in bringing Catholicism to Western Canada, they are holding onto some of their most historically significant parishes, such as the St. Albert Catholic Parish.
For Hilda Daubner, a parishioner at St. Charles since that time, their departure will be like losing a part of their history.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have them. The Oblates are welcoming and warm. It always felt like home here,” she said.
“We used to take the school kids to the St. Albert church and tell them all about Bishop Vital Grandin and Father Albert Lacombe, but they won’t do that anymore. I don’t think many Edmontonians are aware now of the Oblates role in our history.
The Oblates’ departure will be bittersweet for Bong Estoque, who has attended St. Charles for more than 30 years. He is sad to see the priests leave, but he looks forward to the parish’s new future under the Archdiocese of Edmonton.
“The Oblates have been good friends and good to our community. In a sense we became almost like them – missionaries,” said Estoque, who assists with the music and Eucharistic ministry at St. Charles.
Though the parish was initially established by the Archdiocese in 1979, the Oblates have been with the St. Charles Church since 1980.
“It’s a very family and brotherly atmosphere here. They’ll leave behind a good legacy, and I think that legacy will always be here even as the next generation moves in. For some of my children, the Oblates thinking is with them and will stay with them.”
Daubner also hopes the parishioners will find ways to keep the Oblates’ legacy within the church, but those plans are yet to be determined.
Eighty Oblates in Canada have passed away since 2013, but there are currently four men in Canada discerning a call to ministry, Thorson said. In total, there are 282 Oblate priests working in Canada today.
With an increasingly urgent need for new priests, the Oblates are putting a greater focus on their vocation efforts.
“We can’t just wait for people to contact a vocations director,” Thorson said. “Our priests have to make that call of invitation and encourage young men to consider religious life.”
Along with their efforts in Indigenous communities of Canada, the Oblates have also brought their missionary efforts to Kenya and Peru in recent years. The Oblate mission to bring the Gospel and social relief to various parts of the world is what Thorson believes will attract young people to their order.
“I have a really strong belief that there are still young men in Canada who are called to missionary life. Our charism to serve the poor and to give ourselves to help those in poverty — there is an appeal to that for young people.”
As Father Herklotz packs up his books and remaining things from his office, he says there’s much he will miss about his time at St. Charles. He will now be moving on to become the pastor of St. Peter’s Church in New Westminster, B.C. — a parish that dates back to the Oblate’s mission there in 1860. Father McSheffrey will be retiring to St. Albert.
“We get in the neighbourhood of 3,000 people coming to Mass every weekend here,” he said. “For most, a priest is a priest is a priest, but for others who we’ve gotten to know more intimately over the years there is a great sense of loss.
“I won’t miss the sheer volume of work we had here, but I’ll miss the people for sure,” the priest added with a laugh.