Is the Church in Western Canada a colony of the East?

By Glen Argan

Almost lost in the reaction to the retirement for health reasons of Calgary Bishop Fred Henry was the appointment of his successor, Bishop William McGrattan of Peterborough, Ont., and formerly an auxiliary bishop of Toronto.

I need to preface my remarks by saying I have never met Bishop McGrattan and do not have the foggiest notion of whether he will be a good, bad or indifferent bishop for Calgary. I wish him well and hope he will be a good shepherd for southern Albertans.

Further, my comments are not directed at any bishop in particular, but at the process which treats the Church in Western Canada – and most especially in Alberta – as a colonial Church.

Currently, all four Latin-rite dioceses fully inside Alberta’s borders are headed by men from the East. Only Bishop Mark Hagemoen of Mackenzie, a diocese which includes only tiny slivers of northern Alberta and northern Saskatchewan, was born and raised in the West. He is from Vancouver.

Bishop David Motiuk, the Ukrainian Catholic bishop of Alberta, is a native Albertan, although it should be noted that the process for choosing Ukrainian bishops is radically different from that of naming those for the Latin rite.

In the entire 145-year-history of the diocese which has been Alberta’s metropolitan see – based in St. Albert until 1912 and in Edmonton since then – not a single ordinary was born in the West. The closest the diocese has had to a native westerner was Archbishop Anthony Jordan, a man born in Scotland who spent much of his early life in the West and who led the local Church during the Second Vatican Council and the years following.

Jordan had an instinctive sense of the West and its history of co-operatives and credit unions – some of them run by the Church – that were so vital in forming not only Prairie society, but the Church itself. He founded many of the lay-run organizations which helped renew the local Church after Vatican II.

Ironically, his successor, Archbishop Joseph MacNeil, who came from Cape Breton Island, had considerable hands-on experience in forming co-ops in his Nova Scotia homeland.

In Calgary, now the most populous Catholic diocese on the Prairies, the story is similar. Only Bishop Paul O’Byrne, a native Calgarian, hailed from the West. It is worthy of note that O’Byrne was actually elected by the priests of his diocese, a novel post-Vatican II experiment which was quickly curtailed.

One could continue with similar examples, although it should be noted that in recent years, dioceses in Saskatchewan and Manitoba have increasingly been receiving Western-born bishops.

As noted above, the Prairie provinces are not just a chunk of Canada; they have their own unique culture, one in which lay leadership and informality are hallmarks. Another characteristic of the West is that we can be quite testy about Easterners telling us how to mind our business.

Also pertinent is that only once has a Western diocese been headed by a cardinal. That would be Cardinal George Flahiff, an Ontario native and long-time scholar in Toronto who headed the Winnipeg Archdiocese from 1961 to 1982.

One’s place of birth and upbringing does not, of course, completely define a person. However, it does play a major role in one’s formation, likely the largest role outside one’s immediate family. When people move from one culture or sub-culture to another, it can broaden their horizons. But it doesn’t eliminate the horizons a person brings with him or herself to the new locale.

The issue I raise here is not a new one; it has stuck in the craw of many Westerners for decades.

So, if Pope Francis is serious about appointing bishops who have the smell of the sheep, he ought to take a closer look at the episcopal appointments made in Western Canada. We are not a colony, but the history of appointments made to our dioceses does make it appear that the Vatican views us as one.

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