"I think the greatest sin in our life is we don't dare to live to our fullest and become who we really are. Who we're meant to be. Who we can be. I have dared to live."
Reverend James Holland has been the celebrated and much-loved pastor of Edmonton’s Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples since 1995. While Canadians are searching for ways to respond to the need for reconciliation with the country’s Indigenous peoples, Sacred Heart Church, under Father Jim’s guidance, has been practicing reconciliation for a generation. Through his day-to-day dedication and service to the people of his parish and the larger community, Father Jim has become a respected leader and a living symbol of inclusiveness and renewal.
Father Jim’s arrival at Edmonton’s Sacred Heart is the result of a journey – both spiritual and physical. Father Jim was born in 1943 in Wayne County, North Carolina, to Baptist tenant farmers. From an early age, Father Jim showed his independent spirit, whether through resisting baptism or leaving the farm to go explore the big cities of New York and Washington, D.C., then on to Atlanta to attend business school. It was during his time in Atlanta that Father Jim began visiting other churches. One day he walked into Atlanta’s Sacred Heart Church and, not wanting to look out of place, followed the congregation in sitting, standing and praying throughout the mass. He proceeded to accept communion, which he found out afterwards was reserved for baptized Catholics. He decided at that point to become a Catholic.
Father Jim’s independence was put on hold for a few years as he fulfilled his military service obligation. He enlisted in the US Army Reserve, eventually becoming secretary to a general. After serving six years, he was honourably discharged from service.
Upon leaving the Army, Father Jim’s wanderlust continued. Wanting to see more of the world, he considered moving to Australia, but with his parents aging he chose to remain relatively close to them and moved to Vancouver instead. In 1973, he began working for the BC Registered Nurses Association.
Over the next decade, Jim’s management and accounting skills took him beyond Vancouver to jobs in Yellowknife and Whitehorse. In Whitehorse he helped at the orphanage run by the Sisters of Providence. He would regularly discuss his faith with Sister Eva, who ran the orphanage. Eventually, it led him to consider a religious vocation of his own.
In 1988, Jim joined the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement in Washington, DC. He left after three years, feeling that his character was not suited to the Franciscan lifestyle. He returned to Alberta, to a job as the front office supervisor at the St. Albert Inn.
His friend Sister Eva, who Jim says “saw something in me that I didn’t know was there,” recommended him to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, an order of priests with a long history in western and northern Canada and a significant presence in St. Albert. Jim agreed to meet with them and was pleased to feel that they recognized that he had “met God” before he had met them.
Jim undertook his Oblate study and formation at the Sacred Heart School of Theology in Milwaukee, which was renowned for training “second and third career” priests. Jim was ordained in 1995, at age 52, at the Oblate pilgrimage at Lac Ste. Anne, an annual gathering that draws First Nations People and others from all over North America. He received his first parish assignment, Edmonton’s Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples.
Built in 1913, Sacred Heart has always been home to a diversity of congregations, a “nursery” parish for immigrant groups including Italians, Portuguese, Croatians and others, who went on to build their own churches. In 1991, then-Archbishop Joseph MacNeil saw that the church needed new life as the existing congregation was aging and numbers were decreasing. With Edmonton’s Indigenous population concentrated in the inner city, MacNeil decided to move the Native Pastoral Centre to Sacred Heart and declared it a First Nations, Métis and Inuit parish.
When Father Jim arrived in 1995, the church was desperately in need of physical repairs. In financial terms, the collection at masses did not cover the bills. Jim’s management skills found immediate and urgent application. He worked tirelessly to make improvements in the church and the community. Everyone came to know that the church and community were one.
The building’s traditional gothic exterior belies an interior adorned with Indigenous symbolism – the medicine wheel, the rainbow as a symbol of crossing over into the next world, the eagle as a symbol of God. More typical Catholic imagery is rendered by Indigenous artists. Sunday mass begins with a smudging ceremony and all masses follow the concept of the sacred circle. People are welcomed into the circle, not as strangers but as members of a family. Sacred Heart is known across Canada as a safe place for Indigenous people to practice their faith and embrace their culture.
Jim has always practiced inclusiveness and encourages other cultures to participate in mass at Sacred Heart Church. Edmonton’s Eritrean community now has its own Sunday mass with more than 500 participants each week.
Always looking to better the community, Father Jim volunteers on many boards and organizations to ensure that the voices of those in need are heard. He has made it a priority to support his surrounding community, volunteering with such organizations as the Boyle McCauley Health Centre, McCauley Community League, George Spady Society, Knights of Columbus, Lions Club, Boyle McCauley News and the Canadian Club of Edmonton.
Father Jim’s parishioners have rewarded him with impressive and regular attendance. Many from other communities across Alberta and other parts of Canada make a point of attending Sacred Heart when they visit Edmonton and many have said that Sacred Heart is the reason they have returned to church. His parishioners have given him special honours such as his own Indigenous vestments and an eagle feather headdress that is reserved for the most respected persons. They have also given him a Cree name, Napew ka mio tee heet, meaning “Man With a Good Heart”, the same name given to Father Albert Lacombe over 100 years ago.
Jim has also been celebrated by receiving the Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals; Rotary Club Capital Region Integrity Award; the Melvin Jones Award for Dedicated Humanitarian Service by the Lion’s Club International; Rotary International’s Paul Harris Fellow Award and the Aboriginal Role Model of Alberta Award. The City of Edmonton honoured Jim in 2016 by renaming 108A Avenue “Father Jim Holland Way.”
The greatest testament to Father Jim’s esteem is the protest that ensued when the Oblates announced that he would be moved from the parish. Thousands of people signed petitions demanding that he stay. There were comments from people of all backgrounds, Catholics and non-Catholics, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, community activists and those recovering from addictions, each attesting to Father Jim’s impact in the community and in their lives. For them, he was irreplaceable. In the end, the Oblates relented and Father Jim was not moved.
Father Jim Holland exemplifies the true meaning of community service. His work in the church and the congregation, along with his work in the surrounding community, are always for the greater good of all. Jim is quick to remind his parishioners that they – not him, not the building – are the church.