Edmonton restoration project facilitates historic Papal visit

When a devastating fire damaged a spiritual home in Edmonton, Clark Builders worked to get it back up and running.

Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples restoration

Clark Builders’ special projects team shows off their work at Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples. – Clark Builders

Key Takeaways:

  • Edmonton’s Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples suffered severe fire damage due to an accident in 2020.
  • Clark Builders assisted with the restoration, which include lots of complex, custom work.
  • The project’s scope and schedule changed when it was announced that Pope Francis would be visiting the church as part of reconciliation efforts with Canada’s Indigenous community.

The Whole Story:

When Rev. Mark Blom walked through the scorched sanctuary of Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, it felt like he was being punched in the gut.

“I’ve noticed people who drive by who want to kind of look and see what’s happening, you can tell they are very close to tears. It hurts,” said the associate pastor, just weeks after a fire ripped through the Edmonton building. “And the first thing we do is validate their emotions. We validate their feelings. And then we just remind them no one was hurt. No one caused this fire on purpose. We have insurance. We’ll be able to rebuild.”

Debris is scattered along the floor of Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples following a fire. – The Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton

Historic church vows to rebuild

The downtown Edmonton church was built in 1913, making it among the oldest Catholic churches in the city. In 1991 Archbishop Joseph MacNeil designated it as a national parish for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people, meaning that anyone with Indigenous ancestry is considered a parishioner. It was the first of its kind in Canada.

“We are often reminding people that the true church is not the building, it’s the people of God,” Blom said during the fire’s aftermath. “However, we become very attached to our buildings. The power of our religious affections rests upon the sacred art, the sacred place where we pray.”

When church leaders began imagining how they would rebuild, they sought to incorporate Aboriginal cultures and spiritualities. Their plan included a medicine wheel, a redesigned circular altar, replacement of three damaged stained-glass windows, and repairing the Indigenous representation of the Way of the Cross. They felt that the integration of Indigenous elements would support liturgies and sacramental celebrations that truly reflect the culture of those gathered together in Indigenous Catholic community.

Pope announces historic visit

When the church began efforts to rebuild, they turned to Clark Builders’ special projects division. Jason Clooney, superintendent for the Sacred Heart Project, explained that he and his highly experienced team immediately felt the immense importance of the project to the community. 

“It involved a lot of custom work,” Said Clooney. “All the woodworking that was completed on this job was within the Clark Builder’s realm of employees.”

However, the project was soon thrust into the national and even international spotlight when it was announced that Pope Francis would visit the church as part of his pilgrimage of healing and reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous people. 

The project team was now coordinating with high level RCMP officials, Edmonton Police, Global Affairs Canada, the archdiocese, the Vatican and The Swiss Guard to ensure the site was secure and preparations for the visit were made.

Videographers captured the historic work done to prepare for Sacred Heart’s Papal visit. – Clark Builders

With the visit date set in stone, the team had no choice but to crush their deadlines by working from sunrise to sunset.  

“We really had to overcome and adapt daily,” said Clooney. “There was no time to say ‘great idea, let’s talk about it.’ We made those decisions on site based on what looks good and what we were trying to achieve.” 

The visit threw other curveballs at the team. Just 10 days before the visit they were informed that the Pope’s mobility issues required a temporary custom wheelchair ramp inside the church to the stage that couldn’t damage the floors. 

“We didn’t have a backburner so we made it work and we made it to a point where it was safe, acceptable for occupancy with zero incidents, zero injuries and we came out unscathed and proud,” said Clooney. “It’s not every day you get to turn on the TV for something being watched by millions and see your workmanship.”

Giving back a spiritual home

Clooney was one of only a handful of Canadians who was invited to attend the Pope’s visit. While he acknowledged that the Papal visit was exciting and challenging, the true pride for him was helping restore a spiritually important facility for its daily prisoners. 

Part of the construction process involved installing a massive teepee with 32-foot poles under the guidance of Indigenous leaders. They held a ceremony and Indigenous leaders helped them tie the poles in the traditional way. 

“We gave back a church that is historically important to the community,” said Clooney. “We were able to bring that back to life for the people that truly need to be in this space that is safe and comforting. Their choice of healing is here and we were able to give that back.”

A Clark Builders tradesperson work on a window at Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples. – Clark Builders


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