Saturday, Dec. 8th was the 50th anniversary of the official opening and blessing of one of the most famous and beloved landmarks in Red Deer – St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church. The original ceremonies were conducted on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception by Archbishop Anthony Jordon.
The origins of the church go back to the great boom years of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Red Deer was growing at a very rapid rate.
The local Roman Catholic congregation was becoming far too large to be accommodated in Sacred Heart Church on 55th St.
Hence plans were made to create a new parish and then to build a new church on Red Deer’s East Hill. This proposed church was to be part of a Catholic complex, including new schools to handle the burgeoning enrollment of the Red Deer Separate (Catholic) School District – Maryview Elementary (1958) and St. Thomas Aquinas Junior/Senior High School (1962).
In October 1963, Father Anthony Schmidt began to officiate at regular Sunday masses in the St. Thomas Aquinas gymnasium. In early 1964, meetings began to be held for what was initially called St. Thomas Aquinas Parish.
On Aug. 10th, 1964, Archbishop J.H. MacDonald assigned the Oblates of St. Mary’s Province to pastor the new parish.
On Sept. 6th, 1964, the name of the new parish was officially changed to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. St. Mary’s was formally accepted as a shorter name.
Work quickly began on plans for the new church building. Mr. Jim Morrisroe donated three acres of his farm on 39th St. as the site for the church. Father Werner Merx, the new pastor, and a large group of dedicated volunteers, began to work on the project.
Douglas Cardinal, a young local architect, was commissioned to design the structure. It was his first major project. He came up with a unique and very powerful design.
The outline of the church was curvilinear (i.e. there were few straight lines) and there were undulating outer brick walls. Hence while the building was in many respects very modern, its appearance was also reminiscent of ancient churches and religious buildings in Europe.
The official sod turning took place on June 26th, 1966.
The unique design created many construction challenges. The bowl-shaped sloping roof was made of concrete, held in place with an intricate lattice structure of steel mesh and cables. The design and structural calculations of the roof and walls were so complicated (more than 81,000), that there was no computer in Canada that had the capacity to do the work. Hence a special research computer in the United States had to be used.
By the late fall of 1968, the building was complete with a total construction cost of $375,000. The date of Dec. 8th was chosen for the official opening because of the strong symbolism of the date.
The church was such an innovative structure that it soon became internationally renowned. Both Cardinal and the church have been recipients of prestigious architectural awards.
In 1979, the Red Deer Chamber of Commerce issued a special commemorative coin with the image of St. Mary’s. In 2007, as part of a celebration of the centennial of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, Canada Post issued a postage stamp with a photo of St. Mary’s on it.
In 1994-1995, a parish centre was built on the east side of the church to accommodate the ever-growing congregation. While controversial at the time, care was taken to ensure that the addition would complement and blend with the original architecture.
St. Mary’s remains the home of a vibrant Christian community.
Moreover, the uniqueness and timelessness of its architecture is such that many would not have guessed that it is now 50 years old.