An email from Basilian Father Glenn McDonald offered lifesaving help to John Joseph.
“He asked me if I was all right,” said Joseph.
Joseph and his family, in their Fort McMurray home, were not all right. They wanted to flee the fire that forced the evacuation of the city May 3, but had nowhere to go.
Father McDonald, chaplain at St. Joseph’s College on the University of Alberta campus in Edmonton, knew Joseph because the young man had lived in the college men’s residence and was a regular at Mass.
The priest offered Joseph, his sister Reena and their parents sanctuary in one of the college’s residences. Joseph, a recent engineering graduate from the university, quickly accepted Father McDonald’s offer.
The family, four of the more than 80,000 refugees from the northern city, got into their car and headed for the province of Alberta’s capital city of Edmonton, 275 miles south.
Joseph was amazed by the generosity of volunteers as they passed through the small towns. “We tried to pay for things, but they said, ‘No.’”
Now the family is happily ensconced in the college’s women’s residence. They eat in the college cafeteria and await news about the fate of the family home and when Joseph’s father can return to work.
When asked if the fire had shaken his faith, Joseph answered immediately, “This has improved my faith. It gets better all the time. God is always with us.”
Evacuees from Fort McMurray have spread to evacuation centers across Alberta, with some returning to their homes in other parts of Canada or further afield.
The Catholic Church, meanwhile, is raising funds to help those who have fled the massive wildfire and have urged parishioners to pray for those left homeless and those fighting the fire.
The four Alberta dioceses have all held special collections, with the funds being split between the St. Paul Diocese, in which Fort McMurray is located, and the Fort McMurray Ministerial Association.
As well, the province’s bishops have urged Catholics to contribute to the general relief fund run by the Red Cross. As of May 11, the Red Cross had raised more than $52 million for fire relief.
In addition, Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto, a former bishop of both St. Paul and Edmonton, has asked people in Toronto to contribute to a fire-relief fund. Those donations also will be funneled through the Red Cross.
Even Pope Francis has sent a letter to Bishop Paul Terrio of St. Paul, assuring the bishop of his prayers “for all the displaced, especially the children.”
Catholic College Opens Its Doors
Meanwhile, back at St. Joseph’s College, the new women’s residence has been opened to accommodate families and those deemed medically vulnerable who were fleeing the fire.
The college is especially determined to provide homes for families with small children who would suffer from the lack of privacy in cot-filled barracks in the evacuation centers across northern Alberta.
The vulnerable will be those with medical conditions, especially women with high-risk pregnancies. The University of Alberta Hospital is right next door.
The college hoped to take in 10 families. The apartments are ideal because they also have kitchen facilities. The newcomers could be there anywhere from six weeks to two months.
Bishop Terrio celebrated a special Mass for Fort McMurray evacuees in Edmonton’s Resurrection Church May 8, the Solemnity of the Ascension.
The Mass, which packed the church mainly with staff and parents from Fort McMurray’s Catholic-school system, was a joyous time of reunion among friends and colleagues who had not seen each other since the evacuation five days earlier.
Hugs were given in abundance, and tears flowed freely before, during and after the Mass.
In his homily, Bishop Terrio spoke on Jesus’ words, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
“We are witnesses to Jesus in Fort McMurray and now all over Alberta,” the bishop said.
Then noting all those who have taken Fort McMurray residents into their homes and donated to relief funds, Bishop Terrio said, “Other parts of Jesus’ family are welcoming and helping us; they are witnessing. This is basic Christianity.”
“The family of God is so powerful. It is more powerful than the flames of the fire,” he continued. “You have only begun to witness that.”
Meanwhile, the pastors of Fort McMurray’s two Catholic parishes went right back to work in the town of Lac La Biche (home to 2,500 residents), halfway between Fort McMurray and Edmonton.
Father Andrew Schoenberger says he is an evacuee just like the other people driven from Fort McMurray. He has no thought of putting up his feet while members of his flock are left homeless.
“A shepherd should be with his sheep,” said the young pastor of St. John the Baptist parish. “I want to be somewhere where I can be helpful to them, be useful to them.
“The evacuees are going to need someone to grieve with them, to hear their stories.”
So, he and Pallottine Father Prabhakar Kommareddy (Father Reddy), pastor of the city’s other parish, St. Paul, have set up shop in Lac La Biche to minister to both evacuees from Fort McMurray and the local Catholic community, which is currently without a resident priest.
Father Schoenberger’s goal is straightforward: “I just want to bring people the hope of Christ and to know there is light at the end of the darkness. There is reason for hope.”
Father Schoenberger has only been pastor at St. John’s since September, but also served there from 2007 to 2009, immediately after his ordination.
Parishioners come from all over Canada and all around the world, including a large contingent of Filipinos. “It’s a beautiful community,” he said of his flock.
Father Schoenberger said he has been awed by the amount of support from across Canada and even further afield that has come to the evacuees.
The people of Lac La Biche have also been very welcoming.
Said Father Schoenberger, “People here are definitely showing that Christian love and support.”