Diocese rides boom-bust oil-patch economy

Published March 1, 1999

With an economy so closely tied to the oil industry, Calgary has seen its share of boom and bust times over the past 15 years. The Diocese of Calgary, established in 1888, has not been isolated from the challenges and opportunities of coping with wild swings in the economy and its effect on the population. This is true in both the rural and urban areas of the diocese’s 82,000 square miles.

There are about 20,000 Anglicans in 96 congregations in the diocese, which runs east-west from Saskatchewan to British Columbia and north-south from the U.S. border to Lacombe, a community just north of Red Deer.

Archbishop Barry Curtis was elected bishop in 1983. At the time the city of Calgary was booming. People were coming from all parts of Canada to work in the city and residents of Alberta’s rural areas were also leaving home to find work.

“We are so dependent on the oil industry which is very cyclical,” said Archbishop Curtis. “It has a huge effect on the diocese, particularly in the urban setting. When the money flows in there are lots of jobs, but then housing becomes a problem. When oil prices drop, people have to relocate and this affects parishes which were built on the assumptions there would be people and resources to support them.”

A case in point, he said, is the parish of St. George. It was built near the city’s airport to accommodate a growing population. But, by the mid-80s, the financial infrastructure that had looked so promising just a few years before had disappeared.

That left a huge mortgage that was “paralyzing to the diocese through the ’80s,” said Archbishop Curtis. “We just couldn’t look at growth because we had to support this parish and keep it open.”

By the beginning of the 90s, Calgary and the surrounding communities began to see a resurgence of population, thanks in part to a mini-boom in the oil industry. The diocese ran a successful financial campaign. This allowed it once again to look at ways to address the renewal of some long-established rural parishes. Some are more than 100 years old, and many are suddenly serving a much larger population.

Recently, Archbishop Curtis dedicated St. Paul’s in south Calgary and the diocese is in the process of buying land to build a new church for the congregation of Holy Trinity in the city’s north end. That congregation is currently meeting in a school gym.

In satellite towns, like Canmore, growth has challenged Anglican parishes to apply some creative thought not only to expansion but also how to fund it. Bursting at the seams, the church in Canmore had to find a way to grow. However, land prices in the town have become inflated because so many people are moving out of nearby Banff. It was discovered that the church building was actually sitting on four prime building lots, said Archbishop Curtis.

“So they moved the church on to two of the lots and the other two lots were sold to build condos.” Now, the church in Canmore is again looking for more room.

Besides church life itself, many parishes are involved in community ministries, such as the Out of the Cold program, which provides shelter and food for the homeless and Daybreak House, which provides refugee women and their children shelter.

Daybreak began with a diocesan refugee group raising money to buy a small apartment building. Here, newly arrived refugee families, usually headed by women, get a start on new life in Canada.

The diocese is also active in Living Stones, a North American organization involved in establishing new models of formal ministry in rural areas where parishes can’t afford full-time clergy.

If growth and changing economics are the external factors challenging communities throughout the diocese, different brands of Anglicanism often present challenges within them. Essentially, said Archbishop Curtis, different sides have been encouraged to see that they all need and compliment each other.

“One of the most challenging things is to keep the diocese together,” said the archbishop. “We have a whole range of Anglicanism and we have worked very hard to ensure there is a mutual respect and care for one another. There is great satisfaction when that happens and great worry when it does not.”

As he prepares to retire later this year, Bishop Curtis said he and his wife Pat are looking forward to a bit of a rest. But he is not going to bow out of ministry altogether. For one thing, his term as Canadian Council of Churches president will continue for another year. For another, there is the question of where the family will live.

“I came out here from Ottawa to become a priest in a parish,” he said. “Now, we have to look at whether we stay here or go back East. We’re still working on that one.”


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