There is a curious entry in the history of the Saanich Peninsula parish for the year 1865. The note says that the newly ordained priest from Breton, Fr. Mandart, ‘fashioned a church and home from a large fallen tree with upturned roots.’ Fr. Mandart must have been incredibly adaptable to have lived in this way, apparently for 11 years until he was able to build a small church with the help of his neighbours from the First Nations.
The Saanich Peninsula Parish carries on the tradition of a pilgrim church today, always moving and adapting to the community. Fr. Rolf Hasenack OP, parish priest, describes their Easter Vigil service where the parishioners physically walk the journey of our faith, entering the church from the outside then moving around the church for each reading of the great Story. He says that connecting with symbols and Tradition makes the journey memorable. This year, one symbol, the Pascal candle, was decorated with the footsteps of the children who were celebrating their sacraments, and their names were written for the whole community to witness.St. Elizabeth’s stained-glass window also contains footprints journeying through the life of a person. The open design of the church allows for a lot of flexibility in both liturgy and community. “Before COVID-19 hit there were lots of social gatherings and concerts here. Acoustically the space is very good,” Fr. Rolf adds.
The Saanich Peninsula Parish is comprised of two churches: Our Lady of the Assumption on West Saanich Road, and St. Elizabeth of Hungary on Third Street. For the past 25 years, the parish has hosted Friendly Hours Luncheon for the lonely and the poor. “Usually by 9 in the morning this place would be buzzing with cooks, the essence of the lunch was companionship.” Fr. Rolf said. However, with the concerns brought about by the pandemic, the luncheon has stopped. In fact, all the community events have had to be cancelled or moved outside. “It’s going to be hard in the winter because the cold weather isolates.”
Echoing the pilgrim nature of a parish that began in a tree, Melanie Ehrlich, the Parish Office Coordinator says that because of COVID-19, the community has had to adapt and understand the social changes that have happened to everyone. “The fact that we live on an island means we are more protected, but if we do face more restrictions, we should be flexible. Dr Henry is a good example of this,” Melanie says. “She realises that some of her directives need adjustments and she makes them.” Melanie adds that in stepping out and adjusting to something different, “This might just be the ‘ah-ha’ moment to seeing that maybe we were living too frivolously, and we have not been able to see what is here in our own backyard.”
Referring to the shared experience of living in this pandemic, Fr. Rolf says that the Holy Spirit is always working to show us the positive elements. He asks, “What can we do differently and how can we draw out elements that are life-giving?” The Parish Mission Statement provides a framework for the answer to the question, “Let us be open accepting individuals, sensitive to change and willing to take courses untraditional, unknown to us. Let us live as examples of God's love.”