Cultures collide each Sunday morning at Edmonton's Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, with sage burning alongside candles and both hymns and Indigenous drumming resounding through congregations.

The century-old religious institution, located in the vibrant and diverse McCauley inner-city neighbourhood, routinely blends Catholic and Indigenous rituals in its services, making it an obvious backdrop for the pending visit from Pope Francis later this month.

"It's a tremendous opportunity for the healing of Indigenous peoples of this land," said church elder Fernie Marty about the Pope's visit after he smudged the room where a recent mass took place on Sunday.

"People from all over the country come to Sacred Heart. They want to experience what it is like to smudge and pray in a totally different way. We're still using the Catholic faith. It's a combination of both worlds where we can learn to work and live together as individuals, regardless of who we are and where we come from."

Pope Francis is to meet about 150 parishioners of the church on July 25 as a part of his six-day Canadian tour, which also includes stops in Quebec City and Iqaluit. On that morning, he is to also stop at the former site of a residential school in the community south of Edmonton to apologize to survivors.

Ronald Martineau, an Indigenous member and financial secretary of Sacred Heart Church, said the Pope's visit to the church was confirmed after a reverend with the church handed the Pope a letter in April inviting him to Sacred Heart. The Pope had just apologized to Indigenous delegates at the Vatican for the Roman Catholic Church's role in Canada's residential schools and the intergenerational trauma it caused.

After the Pope confirmed his visit, Martineau said the church has been focusing on speeding up renovations following a fire that started when a sage was left burning in August 2020. It damaged the church and exposed asbestos in its walls. Churchgoers have been attending mass in different buildings while church leaders raised $900,000 to pay for construction.

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Martineau said that even though the church won't be fully renovated by the time the Pope arrives, he isn't disappointed.

"How disappointed can you be when the Pope is coming and he wants to bless your church?" he asked.

Theresa Yetsallie, a church member, said after mass she's looking forward to seeing the Pope and will be thinking about her uncles who were residential school survivors.

"They lost their life to alcoholism and they never once talked about their experiences in residential school," the 70-year-old said.

"Every time I hear about what other people went through, I can imagine what my uncles still went through. And now, with the Pope coming, it's a great blessing. It's a great reconciliation. I'm so happy that I'm here for my uncles to say this is so beautiful. I'm going to be thinking of them the whole time that the Pope is here."

Church Rev. Mark Blom said he hopes the Pope is able to recognize during his visit to the church that Catholics can embrace different cultures.

"We are an Indigenous, Metis and Inuit community of faiths and we have many other people who also have joined us who are not Indigenous or have an Aboriginal background," he said.

"That in itself is a sign of reconciliation, where you have people from all nations praying, serving and working together ... It's possible for Catholicism to honor (different) traditions, symbols and spirituality without fearing that somehow our Catholic identity won't be preserved," he said.

He called the Pope "a blue-collar missionary."

"He insists on riding the bus and visiting people in their poor neighbourhoods. So he is already very, very strong on the fact that the church needs to shape itself to people's needs rather than people posturing themselves to fit a certain image of church."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2022.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.