When Rev. Jim Holland first walked into Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples as a newly ordained priest in 1995, his background in accounting and corporate management kicked in.

'We created a really unique and special place.' - Rev. Jim Holland

"If I had not had that experience, we most likely would not have lasted more than three months," Holland said Sunday. 

"There were not a lot of people coming in, there were not a lot of funds or money to pay for the church."

More than two decades later, the congregation has grown by hundreds. They affectionately call him "Father Jim."

Holland is so popular, a section of the avenue outside the inner-city church was renamed Fr. Jim Holland Way.

"We created a really unique and special place," Holland said.

Sacred Heart

Hundreds gathered in the Sacred Heart church basement Sunday to say goodbye to Rev. Jim Holland. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

The congregation vehemently fought a 2015 attempt to reassign their beloved priest to another church.

In response to their protests, Catholic church leaders granted Holland a two-year extension to train his successors at Sacred Heart. 

In May, members of his church again pleaded for an extension. Nearly 3,000 people signed a petition to keep Holland at Sacred Heart.

But this time, his reassignment remained firm.

'We're losing a good man'

Hundreds crammed into the Sacred Heart church basement Sunday to say goodbye to Holland.

"We're losing a good man but we're keeping good memories," said Terry Lusty, a long-time member of the church.

"Those will see us through," he added. "That and a good heart.

"Incidentally, that is the Cree name that we gave to Father Jim — man of good heart."

Terry Lusty

'We're losing a good man but we're keeping good memories,' said Terry Lusty, a long-time member of Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

The church blends Roman Catholicism with Indigenous spiritual practices, catering to First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities in Edmonton.

Located blocks from agencies such as Boyle Street Community Services, Holland said many in his congregation are also homeless or vulnerable.

"This community will always be with me because I worked with them and taught them, but they have also taught me," Holland said. "They are part of who I am today."

Two new priests will replace Holland when he starts a one-year sabbatical in September.