By Andrew Ehrkamp
News Editor

Rev. Jim Holland, the outspoken pastor of Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples and honoured community activist, has been reassigned after 22 years serving the inner-city Edmonton parish.

“I want you to never forget that you are the Church,” Holland told parishioners as he announced the news during Sunday Mass on May 21.

“This is a very unique parish. You will have a job to train the new pastors. We’ve got to teach them about native spirituality. I had to learn it myself when I first came.”

Holland’s reassignment was one of a list announced by his religious order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI). He will be on sabbatical from Sept. 1 to Aug. 1, 2018.

The Oblates have assigned two priests to the parish. Rev. Susai Jesu, a fluent Cree speaker currently serving in Ottawa, will be the new pastor. He will be assisted by Rev. Thomas Kurudeepan, who has served with the Mi’kmaq people in Nova Scotia for 20 years. Both have been appointed to three-year terms, starting July 2.

The parishioners at Sacred Heart were among many across the Archdiocese of Edmonton who learned of changes in their parish leadership on Sunday. The full list of clergy appointments in the Archdiocese was to be released on Monday.

The Oblates first announced the change at Sacred Heart in 2015, but delayed implementing it after parishioners asked for more consultation.

“This comes out of our discernment process and our commitment to continue First Nations ministry. We feel it’s a timely implementation,” said Rev. Ken Forster, Provincial of the OMI Lacombe and Father Jim’s religious superior.

“Father Jim has tremendous trust from the people he has served, and he has earned that over 22 years. He deserves a good break, then we’ll look at the future within ministry.”

Father Jim, 75, has led the parish since he was ordained in 1995.

Forster said the Oblates wanted to give the community some time to adjust and to give Holland a chance to finish some projects. This time though, the decision is final.

“We tried to be sensitive to the community two years ago,” Forster said. “We listened to the community and took some extra time to do this. Some may say no time is long enough.”

Archbishop Richard Smith said the Archdiocese has been blessed by the ministry of the Oblate Fathers in several parishes, including Sacred Heart.

“Father Jim has done a great deal to serve our First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people in particular, and I am pleased to assure them that the Church will continue to journey with them under the new pastoral leadership.”

“It is never easy for parishioners to lose a beloved pastor,” he said, “but our people understand that priests don’t stay forever, and that our precious faith is much bigger than any individual.”

Holland told parishioners he may “spend a few months at the lake, winter in Mexico. After that, I’m not sure. I’ll know in the next few weeks what will happen.”

In an interview, he admitted he’s not happy with the Oblates’ decision.

“Once I’m gone, I’m not coming back. I’m not going to clean up, like I did when I first got here.”

Holland, who is to be awarded the Alberta Order of Excellence for community service this fall, has been praised for blending First Nations spirituality and Roman Catholic teaching as well for as his community work.

He has also provided support in the community for those struggling with addiction, homelessness and the legacy of residential schools. Last month, Holland spoke out in favour of supervised injection sites for Edmonton to deal with the growing opioid crisis in Alberta.

In 2016, he was gifted with an eagle feather headdress by a Kainai elder from the Blood Reserve in southern Alberta and given a Cree name, translated as “Man with a Good Heart.”  

Holland received the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002, as well as the Capital Region Integrity Award from the Rotary Club of Edmonton in 2007. 

The avenue next to Sacred Heart Church was even renamed Father Jim Holland Way.

(This article was corrected on May 23, 2017)

Parishioners react with disappointment

Frank Vidic

There was an audible “No!” when parishioners at Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples learned on Sunday that they would be losing their beloved pastor, Father Jim Holland.

Holland announced during Mass that his religious order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, has assigned two new pastors to take over the parish in July. Holland, 75, has been offered a year’s sabbatical.

“One of the hugest mistakes they will ever make is trying to oust him again,” said Frank Vidic, a parishioner who also rents a room from Holland.

“There will be total upheaval from First Nations people. It’s totally ridiculous. Whoever has that gavel and is swinging it, they are swinging it in the wrong direction,” said Vidic, who is aboriginal.

“There isn’t one segment or group that doesn’t love him with all their hearts, not only the natives.”

Vidic noted Holland is also the celebrant of Mass for the Eritrean community of Sacred Heart Parish.

The Oblates kept Holland on as pastor after more than 2,600 people signed a petition two years ago to keep the popular pastor, who has led the parish since he was ordained in 1995.

“There are lots of elders who say they won’t come anymore if Father Jim leaves,” said Colin Levangie, who has known Holland for more than 30 years.Colin Levangie

“The First Peoples are still being marginalized and Father Jim is reaching them. It’s an injustice to the people. The community was left out in the dark again.”

Levangie, who has a First Nations background, said he helped start the 2015 petition that helped keep Holland at Sacred Heart. He has no plans to start a second one but will sign it if it’s circulated.

“I really feel the depth and the sorrow of the aboriginal community at this time,” said Elaine Dunnigan, who has been a member of Sacred Heart Parish for more than 20 years.

“His role as pastor, as Pope Francis says, is to have the smell of the people on his cassock,” Dunnigan said. “He does that both literally and figuratively. He tries to welcome people with wide, wide arms.”

Dunnigan said parishioners hoped there would more of a “passing of the torch. He could have used help for all those years.”

“I don’t like it because he’s doing a great job, and it’s wrong for them to try to change that,” said Almer Waniandy, whose background is Iroquois and who has been a parishioner for about 10 years. 

“He has a way to talk to the First Nations and they love him so much. We are his people.”