History of the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism
Arising from the Prairie Spirit of Cooperation
A spirit of cooperation on the Canadian prairies permeates the culture, politics, and church life of every town, village and hamlet. Perhaps a result of the early homesteaders' need to bring in the harvest, the ethos of neighbourliness and care for the stranger in our midst, is distinctive of prairie life. The great distances, harsh winters, and a small but diverse population have instilled a mutual dependency that expresses itself in hard work, vibrant cultural life, and a firm spiritual commitment.
The prairie spirit of cooperation is considered the root of the social gospel movement in Canada, leading to numerous social programmes, particularly medicare. This same co-operation also lead to the establishment of the "union churches" in the early years of the last century, the first step to the founding of the United Church of Canada in 1925.
Ecumenical dialogue and practical cooperation began long before the union churches, and has been a particular feature of church life throughout the prairies. Churches members who would seldom speak to each other elsewhere find themselves as neighbours and companions in a ministry of community development, social care, and Christian unity. Co-operation in community projects is no longer the exception, but the rule. The phenomenon of "shared ministry" has become so commonplace in certain churches, that there are now very few clergy who have not found themselves in such a context at some point in their ministry.
The establishment of a ministry of unity
As a result of the high levels of co-operation in life and ministry that is a feature of church life on the prairies, it became evident in the 1960's and 70's that there was a great need to explore the theological basis for the divisions between the churches. In the early 1980's it was recognised that the prairie experience provided a unique opportunity for ecumenical reception of the theological dialogues between the churches.
The Saskatoon Centre for Ecumenism was established in 1984 as the ecumenical office of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon. The founding director, Fr. Bernard de Margerie, a priest of the diocese, was released from pastoral responsibilities to begin this new ministry full-time. The Constitution of the Centre describes the Centre's mandate as:
to call the churches to the goal of visible reconciliation and unity for the world's sake, expressed in one faith and one eucharistic fellowship in Christ.
Further, the Constitution indicates that the establishment of the Centre: corresponds to the common will of the partner churches to move forward together on the road of Christian renewal, reconciliation and unity. We do so in a spirit of faithfulness and obedience to the Gospel.
Echoes of World Council of Churches statements are heard in these and other founding documents of the Centre. The Centre hopes to contribute to the wider ecumenical world, through our experiences and our insights. In turn, we also learn from the experiences and wisdom of others.
Sharing in a unique ministry
From its founding, the Centre had a Board of Directors that was drawn from the various churches in Saskatoon. In 1988, the decision was made that an appropriate level of maturity had been achieved, and that it was time to move to a broader sponsorship. The Local Church Leaders' Group, a regular gathering of the senior leaders of the churches of Saskatoon, approved the revised Constitution of the Centre, and asked the churches of Saskatoon to determine whether they were prepared to sponsor the Centre and provide it with both financial and prayer support.
The Anglican, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian and United churches, along with the Ukrainian Catholic eparchy joined with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon in sponsorship of the new ecumenical enterprise. Like our colleagues at the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism in Montréal, the Saskatoon Centre had an inter-church board, but we were unique in also receiving the sponsorship and financial support of each of our partner churches. More recently, the Mennonite Church of Saskatchewan has also joined this partnership.
Directors and Other Changes to the Centre
1985From 1985-1997, Rita Gillies was Associate Director.
She was charged with the inter-faith focus of the Centre. She has become well-known as a tour guide for Israel and in Saskatoon has gained respect from people in various world religions. She continued with the Centre in a part time volunteer position, leading workshops and tours of the places of worship of other religions.
JUNE, 12Nicholas Jesson, director from 1994 to 1999...
In 1994, Fr. de Margerie, the founding director, stepped down after 10 years of pioneering efforts. Following a review of the operations of the Centre by the partner churches, the Centre initiated a national search for a new director. At this time, effort was made to open the position to candidates from any of the Christian churches. With this in mind, the board established a salary scale competitive with other churches in Saskatchewan and advertised a half-time position of director of the Centre. It was hoped that when the financial resources of the Centre allowed, the position would return to a full-time capacity. In response to the search Nicholas Jesson was the successful candidate and became our second director.
Nick stayed with us for five years, during which time the Centre continued many of the programmes begun by Fr. Bernard. The Centre also initiated a number of new projects and strengthened the relationships with churches in our community.
In September 1999, Jesson returned to full-time doctoral studies at the Toronto School of Theology. His special research interest was the prospects for Evangelical-Catholic dialogue. During Nick’s time at the Cenetre he had developed considerable experience working in this area with the Saskatoon churches. It was his hope that the future may see the development of concerted formal dialogue between these two solitudes.
Rita Gillies retires, Sister Anne Keffer joins our team
In 1997, Rita Gillies, director of Beit Avraham, our inter-faith section, retired after twelve years with the Centre. The Board re-examined the needs of the Centre and was determined to hire an associate director. The new position incorporated elements of the inter-faith and inter-church work of the Centre and worked in close co-operation with the director. The Centre continued to be firmly committed to its inter-faith mandate, and thus the director was to more involved in this area than in the past. Sister Anne Keffer, a deaconess in the ELCIC was selected as the new associate director. She began her new duties on June 1, 1998.
Sister Anne came to the Centre with an extensive ministry background, and had served in three provinces across the country; Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Saskatchewan. She has been a religious educator, youth minister, teacher, retreat director, spiritual director and more recently chaplain for both a high school and a retirement centre. In 1994-95 she was Schmieder Resident at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon. Sister Anne has a Bachelor of Arts, a Bachelor of Education, a Master of Education, and a Doctor of Ministry. In addition, she has completed numerous professional development courses and seminars.
Sister Anne's extensive experience in spiritual direction strongly complemented the strengths of other members of the staff and board. Already widely known and respected across Canada, she was expected to be an active leader in the Saskatchewan church community.
To the best of our knowledge, Sister Anne is the first Lutheran in Canada called explicitly for an ecumenical and inter-faith ministry. The ELCIC is one of Canada's smallest mainline churches. The appointment of Sr. Anne continued the great commitment that the Lutheran community in Canada and around the world has given to the search for Christian unity.
In the summer of 1999 the position of director was offered to Sister Anne Keffer, our associate director. She assumed her new position effective September 1, 1999.
On August 1, 1998 the Centre ended a twelve year connection to St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Parish in Saskatoon where we had our offices. We moved to 250B - Second Avenue South, Saskatoon. While we continued to have a healthy relationship with St. Joseph's Parish, we had outgrown the space available. The new offices provided sufficient space for the staff offices, boardroom, and library. It is hoped that future expansions within the same building will be possible.
Mission and Vision Defined
Under Sister Anne's leadership the Centre adopted a short statement of vision, which was mandated by the Board and Church Leaders in February of 2000:
To promote visible expressions of unity by expanding our ministry throughout the prairies, attracting a greater involvement by all branches of the Church.
Sister Anne initiated programs, supported ongoing initiatives and co-ordinated the continuation of the task of building the Centre into a resource centre. Under her leadership, the Centre reached out to all of Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba, provided information and resources and invited participation in the ecumenical community.
Sister Anne established a local church leaders' group in Regina which meets regularly. Like the Saskatoon group, it provides an opportunity for informal sharing and planning, as well as a social context in which the leaders can develop a rapprochement. Such relationships, both at the leadership levels and in the pews, are the heart of the ecumenical movement.
To complement the new mandate and vision of the Centre, the Board adopted a new name. The Centre became known as the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism, or PCE. The small but significant change of the name from Saskatoon to Prairie was intended to reflect the awareness of a larger mission and ministry to the entire prairies. Although at the time the majority of PCE projects were carried out within the province of Saskatchewan, the conscious awareness of the ecumenical needs of the surrounding provinces provided a stimulus to the re-visioning of the Centre's ministry.