Historic Battleford parish marks 125th anniversary

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04 April 2012

By Therese Jelinski and
Annette and Eugene Lepitzki

PRINCE ALBERT — In 1877, eight years before the Northwest Rebellion, an Oblate priest travelled to the village of Battleford to found a mission.

The fledgling mission in the newly named capital of the Northwest Territories was named after the patron saint of the bishop who had sent the priest, Bishop Vital Grandin.

St. Vital Parish is now 125 years old, a milestone celebrated Nov. 10 by hundreds of people who took part in an open house, mass and banquet.

Bishop Blaise Morand, who concelebrated mass with pastor Rev. Chris Szczepanik and several other priests, noted that St. Vital Parish was even older than the Diocese of Prince Albert.

“We thank God for all the people who had the foresight to establish a parish that would nurture the Word of God,” Morand told almost 700 people at the eucharist.

The offertory gifts were presented by descendents of the John Guthrie family, who have been associated with the parish since the beginning. The procession included great-great grandson Nathan Vany, baptized a week earlier and the newest member of the parish.

At the banquet that followed, parish council chair Marlene Tarnowsky told 450 people the anniversary celebration had drawn parishioners closer together.

“We are being sent forth to enter the next 25 years with enthusiasm to continue the work of the Lord to be the light of Christ to our families, neighbours, and the whole world,” she said.

In a talk about the role of the laity, Rev. Gaetan (“Gates”) Deschamps of Cornwall said that, as pastor of St. Vital in the late ’80s, he had been grateful for the assistance of parish council, the Knights of Columbus, and the Catholic Women’s League.

“Lay people must take ownership of the church ministry,” Deschamps said. “This may not be the answer for the priest shortage, but it is necessary for people to live their baptism. Be a priest, be a prophet, be a king or leader.”

Sister Laurette Breton of the Sisters of the Assumption spoke about the role the Sisters had played in the history and development of St. Vital School, beginning in 1893. The Sisters left Battleford in 1962, after the closing of Assumpta Academy, a high school for girls. Student choirs from St. Vital School sang at the mass.

Oblate provincial Rev. Leo Mann recounted the role the Oblates played in the development of the parish. Amid primitive living conditions, poverty, harsh winters, and influenza attacks, the early priests served the M*tis, European and First Nations people in Battleford and nearby reserves such as Poundmaker and Thunderchild.
The church building of 1883 is still standing in Battleford, the oldest Catholic church in Saskatchewan and a heritage site. It boasts a 407-pound bell that rang three times every working day. In 1888, parishioners numbered almost 500, slightly more than half of them Metis.

The current church was officially opened in 1984 and features Stations of the Cross from the former church. Each station had been purchased by one or two families for $25 — one was purchased by St. Vital School students — during the time of Rev. Andr* Bigonesse, OMI, who served the parish for more than 20 years until 1911.

Today, parish families number 415, with about 1,200 members.

Clergy who attended the anniversary celebrations included another former pastor, Rev. Nestor Gregoire, OMI, of Meadow Lake; Rev. Andrew Cyruk of North Battleford, dean of the North Battleford deanery; and Rev. Janko Kolosnjaji, a Ukrainian Catholic priest from North Battleford.

Copies of a history book compiled by Steve Horacki and Margaret Kite were presented to special guests. As part of the anniversary celebrations, students from St. Vital School and John Paul II High School in North Battleford participated in a prayer/poem writing contest. Winners Jostin Obrowsky, Jonaya Barker, Brittany Graw and Amber Nelson read their entries at the banquet.

Annette and Eugene Lepitzki, St. Vital parishioners for almost 30 years, served on the anniversary committee chaired by Sandy Cook and called the event a success.

“We started planning in April,” said Annette. “The core committee grew and the enthusiasm and the ideas grew. It was truly a joy to see the fruit of our labour.”

Added Eugene, “As Catholics, it’s important that we celebrate important events as community. It rejuvenates energy. It’s very positive.”

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