‘From the bottom of my heart’
Part One

Priests leaving the archdiocese this summer reflect on their ministry in the Peace Country

This summer will be a season of big changes for several parish communities in the archdiocese.

Due to our reliance on priests from religious orders, it is common that some priests are transferred after a period of time ministering in our region. Between June and September of this year there are five religious priests leaving our archdiocese. It is a significant loss that will also mark the arrival of new pastors in our region and other changes over the coming months.

Northern Light interviewed each of these departing priests, asking them to reflect on their ministry in our archdiocese and to offer some words of farewell for the communities they served.

Part One:
Listening, gratitude and the Paschal Mystery

The first priests to leave our archdiocese this summer are two Redemptorists – Fr. Remi Hebert, CSsR, who will be leaving in late July, and Fr Leo English, CSsR, who left this past June. They both served as pastors at the largest church in the archdiocese – St. Joseph’s in Grande Prairie.

We caught up with Fr. Leo shortly before his departure to garner his reflections over the seven years he served as an associate pastor in St. Joseph Church. In those years Fr. Leo also celebrated Masses and offered retreats at a variety of other nearby parishes – such as Beaverlodge, Bezanson, Rycroft, Spirit River and Sexsmith.

Every Christmas he travelled to the Northwest Territories to celebrate Mass in some of the most northernly and isolated communities of Canada, and most recently he celebrated the Easter Triduum with the Catholic community of Fox Lake in the most northernly regions of our archdiocese.

All of Fr. Leo’s fondest memories here are connected to the people he served in Grande Prairie and the wider Peace Country region. Whether its his time celebrating the sacraments in the bustling city church of Grande Prairie, or travelling to say Mass to a faithful few in the some of the most isolated church communities of Canada, what Fr. Leo found most inspiring was simply the chance to be a listening ear for the hopes, struggles and faith of others.

“I will miss the very sacred encounters I’ve had with so many people over these seven years. I’ve walked on holy ground with people – to funerals, weddings, in hospitals, and I’ve been privileged to do all of that,” Fr. Leo said. “There’s something very unique about the people here. The cold and dark of a Northwestern Alberta winter – it shapes people, shapes their worldview, and there are very strong people of faith here.”

In sharing all these pivotal moments with people, Fr. Leo says what he enjoys most of all is providing others with the space to share their stories.

Fr. Leo English CSsR celebrates one last Mass at St. Joseph’s High School in Grande Prairie.

Listening and gratitude are two attributes that shine through in his priesthood.

“My favourite part of the whole thing is just this – sitting with people, giving them the time and space to share their story, whatever it is,” he said. “Some of my favourite topics are gratitude and listening. Those are two big things in my world. And I can struggle with them myself – to be a better listener, to be more grateful.”

Reflecting on the fondness that he has grown to have for the Grande Prairie community, Fr. Leo connected his move to the vow of poverty he made as a religious priest. For him, that poverty has not so much meant being materially poor; rather, it entails moments like this – having to leave a place where he has fostered many roots, many strong friendships and many cherished memories.

“I’m not poor in a material sense, and I never will be. But leaving is a part of my poverty,” Fr. Leo said, visibly emotional. “In Newfoundland there is that great expression when they talk about resettlement, that ‘you leave without moving and never arrive.’ I lived for six years in Saskatoon, I lived for years in St. John’s, Newfoundland and now seven years in Grande Prairie, and a piece of my heart is left in each place. For me to go to Vancouver, I have to take it on a spiritual level that this is what I’ve been asked to do.”

As he prepares for the next stage of his priesthood as the pastor of Our Mother of Perpetual Help Church in Vancouver, Fr. Leo reiterates, as the departing message for the people he has served in Grouard-McLennan, those key messages of his ministry – listening and gratitude.

“My personal motto is: building a better world one relationship at a time. So my departing message would be steady the course, and work on listening, gratitude and one-on-one relationships.”

Four of the priests departing the archdiocese this summer receive a blessing at Mass, as part of a farewell celebration in Peace River.

Fr. Remi Hebert, CSsR, has served St. Joseph Church for a little longer than Fr. Leo, having been pastor now for the past 11 years. While he is originally from Alberta, he came to Grande Prairie in 2012 from his previous pastoral placement in Sudbury, Ontario. In his first years here Fr. Remi would sometimes help with ministry at Immaculate Conception Church in Sexsmith, but Grande Prairie has been the central hub of his priesthood for the past decade.

Like each of the priests we asked, the fond memories are too many to recount for Fr. Remi. At his farewell celebration on June 25th, Fr. Remi gave a moving reflection on the Beatitudes, and tied each Beatitude to a memory related to the parish. In “Blessed are the meek,” Fr. Remi saw the example of parishioners’ cooperation during the COVID-19 pandemic, abiding by the difficult and constantly-changing government restrictions with humility. In “Blessed are the merciful,” he saw the many works of charity and outreach that St. Joseph’s parish community was involved in. In “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he saw those parishioners who joined in prayer with a group gathered by the church bell two summers ago, in reaction to the initial reports of alleged unmarked graves in Kamloops, B.C.

Key to all of his memories of the parish is in how well St. Joseph’s kept active and remained a place for fostering relationships and community – not only through the celebration of Mass, but through various ministries, councils and groups that met within the church.

“With the size of the parish we are able to do so many things to build community,” Fr. Remi reflected. “The Easter Triduum and the Vigil are also very important to me, and we did that well every year I thought. As well, being a part of the Catholic schools and having the opportunity to celebrate Mass and be a witness of faith there was very important for me.”

Fr. Remi Hebert, CSsR has spent the past 11 years as pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Grande Prairie.

Of the things he will miss most, Fr. Remi says it is above all the people. With 11 years in the area, he has been with the St. Joseph community for close to a full generation.

“I’ve journeyed with people through baptisms and other sacraments. Now, in the last couple years, when children come for First Communion their parents will mention that I also baptized their child,” Fr. Remi recalled. “And being here so long now, some of the high school students will mention that I’ve been their priest for as long as they can remember.”

Fr. Remi is now preparing for quite a different job from the pastor of a big city parish. He has been chosen by his religious superiors to become a formation director for Redemptorists seminarians, and will be working out of the San Antonio Theologate in Texas. He has been warned that it may not be as busy as Grande Prairie, but it will still come with plenty of challenges and duties. Fr. Remi is already signed up for a course on being a formation director and will also be taking a course to learn Spanish.

This is only an excerpt. Read the full story in the July-August 2023 edition of Northern Light