Reimagining ministry in Athabasca and the Atlantic

November meetings in St. John's, Nfld., brought together clergy and bishops from the dioceses of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, Central Newfoundland, Western Newfoundland and Athabasca to talk about how to work together in meeting the spiritual needs of Newfoundlanders in northern Alberta. Photo: Terry Leer
November meetings in St. John's, Nfld., brought together clergy and bishops from the dioceses of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, Central Newfoundland, Western Newfoundland and Athabasca to talk about how to work together in meeting the spiritual needs of Newfoundlanders in northern Alberta. Photo: Terry Leer
Published December 21, 2015

Jenilee Gale is a resident of Peace River, Alta., but where she considers “home” to be is a more complicated question.

She first moved to Alberta from Hampden, Nfld., when she was 10 years old and has moved back twice in the past 21 years, most recently because of her husband’s work as a carpenter.

“I’m in between…I mean, our work is here…so you have to make Alberta your home, even though you know that, in some aspects, Newfoundland’s always going to be part of your heart,” she explains over the phone.

Gale is not alone in feeling this way. Newfoundlanders have been migrating to Alberta for decades now, drawn by opportunities created by the oil boom, and even those who decide to stay long-term often plan on moving back to Newfoundland when they retire. And, also like Gale, many of these Newfoundlanders are Anglicans.

According to the 2011 National Household Survey, there are 6,385 Anglicans living in and around Peace River alone-but the diocese of Athabasca, which stretches across northern Alberta, counts only 1,818 members on its parish rolls.

The Rev. Dane Neufeld, rector at All Saints Anglican Church in Fort McMurray (home to 5,665 Anglicans, according to the same census), said that while he knows his city is home to many Newfoundland Anglicans, it often takes them a while to get in touch.

“There are a ton of Newfoundland Anglicans in the city who we meet for the first time through baptism,” he said. “It can be a bit of an awkward relationship-for them, it’s awkward to come and talk to us about baptism because they realize they don’t know anybody here.”

This was certainly true for Jenilee Gale and her husband, David, who became involved in St. James Cathedral in Peace River after having children. And at All Saints, Neufeld says, there are many Newfoundlanders who are active in the parish. But he wondered about how many lifelong Anglicans there are living in For McMurray who simply haven’t plugged into a local church yet-concerns that are shared by his bishop, Fraser Lawton.

“How many people have come out to us and had a reputation of being active in their home parish, but we don’t necessarily see them here?” Lawton said in an interview with the Anglican Journal. “How do we connect with them?”

While ministers across Athabasca have been aware of the issue for some time, Lawton said, it wasn’t until a clergy event in March 2015 that a plan for reaching Atlantic Anglicans began to develop. It eventually led to a November 17 delegation from the diocese of Athabasca-comprised of Lawton, Neufeld, Dean Iain Luke, Archdeacon Terry Leer and the Rev. Fariborz Khandani-travelling to St. John’s to meet with 17 clergy and all three bishops from the three dioceses in Newfoundland and Labrador. Following the Newfoundland meeting, Lawton and Leer went on to the diocese of Fredericton to meet with Bishop David Edwards and learn more about the New Brunswick Anglican context.

Lawton said that the trip was “a good opportunity just to compare notes and understand each other,” given the very different ways in which Anglicanism is expressed in the two regions.

Bishop Geoff Peddle, whose diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador hosted the meeting, said that Newfoundland and Athabasca have “vastly different church cultures and ways of operating,” and this needs to be taken into account when doing ministry.

“In Newfoundland, religion…church membership is still culturally very evident beyond the visible church,” he explained. “[Newfoundlander’s] membership is sometimes not very strongly expressed, and yet they still have a desire for the sacraments of the church and the pastoral ministry of the church at key moments of change in life-birth, confirmation, marriage, death and other kinds of pastoral crises.”

Peddle noted that for many Newfoundlanders, the strongest point of religious identification is the home parish, and that sometimes this can be an impediment to their spiritual growth while away from home.

“They’ve retained their relationship and membership with the church in Newfoundland, and that, I think, in an unfortunate way prevents them from putting down the roots they should be putting down out there,” he said.

The challenge that Atlantic and Athabasca clergy need to address, Lawton and Peddle said, is how to encourage Easterners to get involved in the church where they are living, while still affirming their ties to their home parishes.

Part of this might mean re-imagining what membership looks like, Neufeld suggested. Old models based on stable residency do not reflect the reality for migrant workers and expatriates. Rather than feeling they need to sever ties with their home parish and build new ones in Alberta, they should be encouraged to feel at home in both.

“We’re not trying to take away from somebody’s tradition or connection to their home parish. If they want to baptize a child in Newfoundland, for example, we want to do everything we can to encourage that,” he said. “We share people.”

According to a report written by Leer, the meetings in Newfoundland and New Brunswick have led to a few concrete plans for partnership. Representatives from the dioceses involved will attend each other’s synods and Atlantic Anglicans currently active in churches in Athabasca will be encouraged to reach out to their fellow Easterners. A brochure about Athabasca will also be distributed in the Maritimes and Newfoundland, and Lawton has said he will invite the Newfoundland bishops to tour Athabasca sometime in the near future.

For Lawton-who also plans on writing regularly for the Anglican Life, the paper that serves the dioceses of Newfoundland and Labrador-communicating to Anglicans from the east coast that participation both at home and away is possible is the first step toward bringing them more fully into the life of the church in Alberta.

“What we want to convey is…that message that you’re not betraying the parish you came from by becoming a part of one here,” he said. “We’re happy to be their temporary home away from home.”


  • André Forget

    André Forget was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2014 to 2017.

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