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Remember that time the Pope came to town?

Roots of History looks back at Pope John Paul II's outdoor mass in Sturgeon County.
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MEETING THE MASSES – John Paul II was known as a people person who delighted in meeting the faithful face to face. Here, he greets scores of delighted Catholics in the VIP section of the mass grounds.

Roots of History
The Gazette is digging into a different part of Sturgeon County’s history each month this year to commemorate the county’s centennial. Do you have a topic you want covered? Email [email protected] with your suggestions.


Today, it is a humble farmer’s field just south of Lancaster Park on the Edmonton Garrison.

But 34 years ago this month, it was the site of what was probably the largest religious gathering ever in Sturgeon County. Some 125,000 people from across Canada came to this field on Sept. 17, 1984, to meet one man: Pope John Paul II, who was there to hold an outdoor mass as part of his first visit to Canada.

Farmer Les Crozier and his family had a front-row seat in the VIP section. He farmed this quarter section and was one of the hundreds of volunteers who made the papal visit happen.

“It was a very exciting day,” he said. “It was one of the bigger events in our lives to see the Pope.”

Preparing for His Holiness

Catholicism has deep roots in Sturgeon County. Catholic priests such as Father Jean-Baptiste Morin brought many of its first settlers to this region, and Catholics still make up a significant chunk of the population in communities like Morinville and Legal today.

So it was a big deal for many Catholics in the early 1980s when the Pope announced that he would be visiting Edmonton, said Lucien Houle, a Morinville resident who attended the outdoor mass.

“You could compare it to the Queen coming to Canada.”

While Karol Wojtyla (John Paul’s birth name) had previously visited Alberta as a cardinal, this was his first time here as a pope, said Monsigneur Jack Hamilton, a retired priest who was part of the Edmonton Archdiocese’s organizing committee for the Pope’s visit. It was also the first time any pope had visited this nation.

“It sort of put a stamp of approval on Canada.”

The Pope had been invited to Canada by this nation’s bishops, Hamilton said. His 12-day tour took him across the nation, with the stop in Edmonton (the main diocese in Alberta) coming about midway through it.

Preparations for the Pope’s visit began about a year in advance, Hamilton said. Organizers had to figure out security, accommodation, traffic control and a place big enough for the hundreds of thousands of people who would attend the Pope’s mass.

Namao Airbase offered up the land south of Lancaster Park as the spot, presumably because they owned it, Crozier said. The land had hard-packed soil since it was being used for hay at the time (which does not require cultivation), and his family had land nearby that could be used for parking.

Once the hay was cleared, Crozier said crews moved in to cordon off walkways and standing areas and lay cables for the sound system. They also put sod and about two inches of wood chips around the stage to handle the damp soil – it had rained for a week straight before the Pope’s visit.

On the church side, Hamilton said organizers rallied hundreds of volunteers to act as ushers and security during the Pope’s visit.

“We had thousands and thousands and thousands of the (communion) wafers,” he said, and around 100 church officials at predetermined sites to help distribute them.

Crews built a huge stage that was 24 feet high and covered about a third of an acre, the Gazette archives report. At the top of its 42 steps was a large dove-shaped canvas-wrapped canopy called The Dove of Peace, which represented the Holy Spirit and shielded against the sun and rain.

As head of the local fire department, Namao’s Ted Suranyi was tasked with co-ordinating the county’s fire response at the mass, conducting fire safety inspections and working extensively with military, medical and police forces.

“It was very heavy security,” Suranyi said, with the entire area fenced off and everyone funnelled through a single security tent.

Suranyi said there were crews from every county fire hall and six fire trucks on site in case of an emergency. The University of Alberta Hospital was ready for mass casualties. He actually didn’t get to see much of the mass, as he was driving his truck juggling three radios to co-ordinate all the emergency responders on site during it.

The big day

John Paul touched down at Namao Airbase on Sunday evening, reports The Pope In Canada. Hamilton said he was part of the delegation that greeted him upon arrival.

“It was a bit of a thrill to me. I’d never been close to a pope before.”

About 100,000 people lined the streets as John Paul rode the Popemobile from Namao Airbase to St. Joseph’s Basilica in Edmonton, The Pope in Canada reports.

John Kirk of St. Albert was one of the many volunteers in yellow nylon jackets supervising the crowds along Jasper Avenue. He recalled how the sidewalks were packed with cheering and waving people.

“It was like he was a folk hero.”

Kirk said he and the other volunteers had been told not to turn and look at the Pope, as they had to be on guard for troublemakers – a man had shot John Paul just three years before. Of course, as soon as the Pope showed up, he and all those other yellow-jacketed folks ended up turning to look anyway.

The Pope stayed at the Grey Nuns Centre in Edmonton overnight, The Pope in Canada reports. By the next morning, some 125,000 people were waiting for him at the mass site – a “religious Woodstock” of folks of all ages, many of whom camped out there overnight, the Gazette archives report.

Crozier and Suranyi used the same word to describe the crowd: “overwhelming.”

“It made you realize what a big figure he was in the world,” Crozier said.

Loud applause and cries of “John Paul, John Paul” greeted the Pope upon arrival by helicopter at about 10 a.m., historical accounts report. John Paul drove around in the Popemobile and mingled with those in the VIP section for about 25 minutes before making his address, during which he criticized the nuclear arms race and the exploitation of the South by the North.

After giving his speech and communion, John Paul donned a white overcoat and told the crowd, “The mass is over. Go in peace,” The Pope in Canada reports.

In reference to the stiff breeze that tossed his vestments about during the ceremony, he said, “Canada is a big country. It is almost a continent. It is sometimes sunny, sometimes rainy, and (a long delighted pause) sometimes windy!”

The next stop on the Pope’s tour was Fort Simpson, but he had to call it off due to thick fog. John Paul returned to Canada in September 1987 to make up for it, once again landing at Namao Airbase.

St. Albert resident William Buckham, who commanded the base at the time, recalled how the Pope wandered around to shake hands with many of the 250-some people on base while he was waiting for his plane to be prepared.

“He just mixed like he was one of the folks.”

Buckham said he not only got to shake John Paul’s hand, but also got a peek at his quarters on the plane. Instead of something fancy like you’d expect, “it was a very humble mattress, laid out very simple and very rudimentary, reflective of a degree of humility.”

The Pope’s legacy

Hamilton said the Pope’s visit was a shot in the arm for area Catholics and reignited the faith in a lot of people.

“It was just marvellous to see that many people all out in one place.”

Kirk said he felt elevated and accepted after the mass, and was happy to hear that the Pope was glad to come back for a second visit in 1987.

“That really brought my faith to life, when the leader of the Catholic Church was really happy (to be) where I grew up.”

Suranyi said the Pope’s visit brought experience to the Namao Fire Department and inspired greater interdepartmental co-operation among county firefighters.

After crews cleaned up the mass grounds, the Dove of Peace went into storage until 1988 when the Edmonton Catholic district restored it as part of their centennial celebrations, said district archivist Helen Scarlett. It now stands (minus its canvas cover) near the Muttart Conservatory atop a time capsule set to be opened in 2088.

Today, Crozier still farms what the family now calls “the Pope site” and has a picture of the mass on his wall. He’s not sure if the Pope’s presence had any effect on the field’s fertility.

“We always talk like that, that we’ve got the blessed land there now.”

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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