The origins of the Inner City Pastoral Ministry are to be found in the history of the United Church of Canada’s presence in the inner city of Edmonton.  That presence dates back to 1910, with the establishment of the Pike Mission by the Methodist church at the corner of 96th Street and 103A Avenue.  By the 1930′s the Pike Mission had evolved into the Bissell Institute (named after a legacy to the United Church from Mr. Torrence Bissell).  Included in the Bissell Institute was a formal congregation known as Bissell United Church.  After this congregation ceased active status in 1968 informal worship services were continued on an occasional basis at the Bissell Centre (as it became known in the early 1970′s).

By the mid-1970′s staff at the Bissell Centre became increasingly aware of the lack of a spiritual dimension in the services offered to the community by the Centre.  The United Church – Edmonton Presbytery established a task force in 1976 to evaluate the concept of re-establishing a formal pastoral presence in the inner city.  An experiment was begun that year to offer a monthly worship service.

The services were very well received by the community, and in 1978 the Edmonton Presbytery decided to establish an ongoing ministry, which they named the Inner City Pastoral Ministry.  Worship services were to be held on a weekly basis at the Bissell Centre, preceded by a hot lunch.  It was decided to call a full time minister for the Ministry, who would not only lead the Sunday service, but also provide a spiritual presence during the week for residents of the inner city.  The ministry was designed to be ecumenical, and people of all faiths, or no faith, would be welcome to worship.  Rev. Barrett Scheske, a Lutheran minister, was called in the summer of 1979 as the first pastor.  At this time the Lutheran and Anglican churches also formally became supporting members of ICPM along with the United Church.

Pastor Barrett reflected on his ministry in those early years in this way:

“[The inner city] is the home of Edmonton’s poorest people.  In less than one square mile, not five minutes from the downtown office towers, they crowd into rooming houses and single family dwellings.  The area is characterized by a highly transient population, mostly male, and many single parent families.  Unemployment is widespread.  Alcohol and drug abuse, prostitution, child abuse and street crimes are common.  People die young here.  But it doesn’t mean that we stop caring for them or loving them or having hope.  Hope lies in the building of relationships and the small celebrations in daily living.”

The ICPM presence was well established by the early 1980′s.  After initial financial support from the Mission and Service Fund of the United Church of Canada, the Edmonton Presbytery of the United Church assumed full financial responsibility for the ministry.  This began to be supplemented in these years by support from the Anglican and Lutheran denominations, as well as by congregations and individuals, a structure which exists to this day, as ICPM does not receive any government grants or funding.

Pastor Scheske served until December, 1982.  For the next two years a succession of three interim pastors, all from the United Church, served with ICPM.  They were Rev. Renee Riley, Rev. Brian Allan and Rev. Bert Frey.  In 1984 Rev. Odette Perron, an Anglican priest, took over as pastor at ICPM.  Pastor Odette served with ICPM until 1989.  A look back at Pastor Odette’s time of ministry from Our Story, a short history of ICPM published on the occasion of our 25th anniversary in 2003, noted that:

“Odette’s ministry had meager and humble beginnings.  She had an office downstairs in the Bissell Store.  Her first service was in the corner of a dilapidated gymnasium, an area otherwise being used for storage.  Her first congregation was 12 – 20 people from the streets who came in with the enticement of coffee and a sandwich after the service.  Odette walked the streets, talked to people, invited them into her office, and reached out to them with love.”

Pastor Suzanne Cowles from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) assumed the position of pastor in 1989.  By this time attendance at the Sunday worship services was growing, and the tradition of serving a lunch meal after the service had taken root.  A great many congregations from a variety of denominations in Edmonton and area took turns providing the food and the volunteers to make the meals possible for the residents of the inner city.  Pastor Suzanne served during a time of extensive government cutbacks, at all levels, to a wide variety of social programs.  In 1990 attendance at the Sunday lunches averaged about 95 people per lunch.  By the end of Suzanne’s ministry in 1996 the average attendance was roughly 300 per meal.

Pastor Suzanne later reflected on her time in ministry at ICPM:

“Throughout my years of ministry, there were events that sent my spirit soaring and the next moment, circumstances of despair that sent it plummeting.  It is so hard to see someone suffering when often little can be done beyond simply being present with them.”

Pastor Faith Brace, also a minister from the ELCIC, took over as ICPM’s pastor in 1995, and served until 2001.  It was during this time that an important step was taken by ICPM – a pastoral associate was added to the ministry, with the addition of Sister Marion Garneau of the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception.  Sister Marion’s salary was paid by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton, which formally brought the Roman Catholic Church into the ministry of ICPM.  Pastor Faith and Sister Marion worked joyfully together, and helped to establish the ministry model that is now a vital part of the ICPM presence in the inner city.

Sister Marion reflected on what she had experienced serving with ICPM:

“The fact that we are a ‘church without walls’ is not only appropriate but very much in keeping with the reality of many of those we serve. …  Church is also the people of God where they are – on the streets, in prisons, in the drop-ins and support agencies, in the many celebrations of life and death.  In many of the initiatives that advocate for rights or for an improved quality of life, the people of the Inner City experience their own dignity and strengths, their own ability to make a difference.  In these same encounters, the Gospel becomes incarnate, and the people themselves recognize God’s presence in daily events.”

Pastor Wendy Ainsworth, an Anglican priest, succeeded Pastor Faith and became ICPM’s pastor in 2002.  These years saw a tremendous growth in economic activity and prosperity in Edmonton.  Soaring demand for rental units and “condoization” of what were apartment buildings created an unfortunate effect of increasing homelessness for residents of the inner city.  The Sunday lunches continued to transition into a “full meal deal” in Wendy’s words.  Average attendance at the Sunday meals was about 245 people, with some Sundays seeing as many as 370 in attendance.

Pastor Wendy reflected on what she experienced in her ministry:

“There is joy in this ministry in the deep and abiding faith of the people through all that life – and in particular, God – offers to those who walk in faith.  Sometimes, the joy seems small, like being invited into someone’s home for a minute.  Sometimes, it seems like a mixed blessing, like stopping to talk with someone on the street and finding out the reason they stopped you is to tell you that they’re dying and to ask you to pray for them.  Right there – on the street!  And you realize that there is joy here too in their offering this to you and reaching out for God.  Sometimes, the joy is great – like celebrating the birth of a child, presiding at a wedding, hearing the stories, or seeing someone off on the bus to a ‘real’ job that you know will last that will give them the security and independence that they need. …  It is God’s work that we do here – and it is only successful when held in the hands of God – and God works in wondrous ways.”

The Sunday lunch meals are an important part of the ICPM ministry.  It provides an important mid-day meal for residents of the inner city on a day when most other food providing agencies are closed.  Just as importantly however it also provides an opportunity for our ministry staff and volunteers to build relationships, both with members of the community and with each other.  One of the Sunday volunteers recently reflected on his experience helping serve at a meal:

“Several months ago I was privileged to serve as one of the helpers at the ICPM Sunday morning service and lunch at the Bissell Centre.  I wanted to tell you how deeply moved I was by the experience of drawing closer to brothers and sisters with whom I would not normally have contact.  As Jesus bore witness, we are called not just to help the poor, but to love the poor, and there is a big difference between helping and loving, the first requiring nothing of us except perhaps material assistance, the other a shedding of our ego autonomy to reach out in simple friendship and indeed solidarity, given our mutual poverty in the larger economy of grace.  I came to the ICPM lunch at Bissell to serve, but found myself served; humbled and drawn closer to God and my broader human family.”

A vital part of keeping the meal ministry going is the role of our Food Coordinators.  They look after a myriad of tasks and details, and without them we literally could not provide our meals.  We have been blessed to have many very dedicated and capable Coordinators serving ICPM over the last number of years, being Terry Kettleson from 2004 – 2012, Linda Winski from 2012 – 2013 (while also serving as Pastoral Associate), Linda Heywood from 2013 to current, Tammy Montpetit from 2013 – 2015 and Annie Johnson, who has recently started with ICPM.

After the conclusion of Pastor Wendy’s ministry in 2005, the pastoral position at ICPM was filled on an interim basis by Rev. Jo-Anne Kobylka, an intern from the United Church of Canada.  Rev. Jo-Anne served with ICPM from September 2005 until August 2006, when Rev. Rick Chapman, an Anglican priest, was called to take over as the ICPM  pastor.  Pastor Rick continues to serve as the current senior pastoral leader with ICPM.  Pastor Rick reflects on his time of ministry with ICPM:

“As I read the comments of Pastor Barrett, the first pastor ministering with ICPM, I am struck with his description of the inner city – ‘Home of Edmonton’s poorest, crowded rooming houses, an area characterized by a highly transient population, unemployment widespread.  Alcohol and drug abuse, prostitution and street crime common.  People die young.’  In many ways life within the inner city has not changed!  Yet through the grace of God and the support and prayers of the wider church the ICPM ministry of presence continues.  For some years now I have had the great privilege of walking with the inner city community, prayerfully engaging with the struggles of individuals challenged with mental health and addictions and the losses which accompany such a life journey.  Yet, in the midst of the marginalized many, I sense the spiritual presence of our risen Lord, loving, supporting and caring through difficult life journeys.  The risen Lord present in the love and support of God’s community of faith the many ministry and support workers of the inner city who bring comfort to ‘God’s little ones, the blessed poor’ to quote Henri Nouwen.”

There have been a number of significant challenges and opportunities for ICPM during the past few years.  Not the least among these was a major staff transition in 2013 with the retirement of Sister Marion from her position as pastoral associate and Linda Winski, who had also served as a Pastoral Associate.  ICPM was blessed to have both of these dedicated and enthusiastic staff members serve for so many years with ICPM.  Mary Anne Miskolzie joined ICPM as the new pastoral associate in the spring of 2013 and we were privileged to have her strong presence with us until the spring of 2015.  At that time we were able to establish a new direction of ministry for ICPM with the creation of the Oskapew position (Cree for “helper”), which is staffed by Michelle Nieviadomy.  This position was created in order to have a greater focus on ministry with residents of the inner city with Aboriginal heritage.  Michelle has made tremendous strides in helping ICPM develop deeper relationships with the Indigenous community in the inner city.

After more than 40 years of ministry we are honoured and blessed to have the opportunity to continue to walk with the residents of the inner city, and to share and experience God’s love with them.

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