Faiths flourish at the churches, mosques, and gurdwaras of Mill Woods

Faith flourishes in its many forms in Mill Woods, where it's not uncommon to find churches, mosques and gurdwaras packed with people gathered to worship and help grow their communities.
Women pray at Markaz-Ul-Islam in Mill Woods. (CBC/Ariel Fournier)

CBC Edmonton is setting up a pop-up newsroom at the Mill Woods Public Library for the week of Sept. 10-14. We'll be exploring stories and perspectives from one of Edmonton's oldest communities, and will be broadcasting live from the library on Sept. 14. Have a story to pitch? Come say hi!

A chance encounter with a priest in a coffee shop steered Lincoln Ho to a new church and a new branch of his faith.

Ho was a protestant looking for a new church. The priest was a former a Baptist. After discussions about faith and visits to St. Theresa Parish, Ho converted to Catholicism. He now joins the hundreds who worship at the church in Mill Woods, where mass can sometimes be standing room only.

"After becoming Catholic, the (parishioners) would always say congratulations, and I never got that anywhere else," Ho said after mass on a recent Sunday.

But it's not just Christians who flock to places of worship in this corner of the city — there are more than 20 major religious institutions in the 26 individual neighbourhoods that comprise Mill Woods.
Lincoln Ho attends mass at St. Theresa Parish in Mill Woods. (CBC/Min Dhariwal)

Faith flourishes in its many forms in the southeast corner of Edmonton, from churches, to mosques to gurdwaras, where Sikhs gather. Worshippers say they not only seek places of spiritual growth, but also centres that build community and friendship.

For Ho, the many faiths practised in Mill Woods symbolize something special about his part of the city.

"Sometimes when I introduce myself, I don't say I'm from Edmonton, I say I'm from Mill Woods, Alberta," he said. "Because it is truly a mini-city of different cultures. All of these cultures and ethnicities and faiths come together into something that's really beautiful. And everyone respects each other."

'This is the real community forum'

Less than two kilometres away from St. Theresa is the Markaz-Ul-Islam, which sometimes welcomes up to 3,000 Muslims for Friday prayers.

Arif Ali said the mosque shouldn't be viewed as a self-contained space — it is a place that helps build community both within and beyond its walls, much like a church, or a synagogue or a gurdwara.

"People move into these neighbourhoods because they want to be within walking distance (of the mosque)," he said.
A volunteer prepares food at the Gurdwara Siri Guru Singh Sabha in Mill Woods. (CBC/Min Dhariwal)

"This is the real community forum for our folks to share their daily experiences, whether it's about their job, or if their going through sickness, or if they're new immigrants, coming to ask for help and advice and guidance from the people who have been living here for some time."

The mosque is about 35 years old. Construction began not long after the first residents started moving into Mill Woods. The area was always conceived as a place that would support affordable housing and the integration of immigrants.

Ali thinks the Mill Woods area still attracts newcomers, who are looking for guidance and the chance to form connections in their new communities.

Focal point for faith, politics, friends

Often, those connections last for generations. At the Gurdwara Siri Guru Singh Sabha, a Sikh temple in Mill Woods, young people gathered upstairs from the langar, a communal kitchen where vegetarian food is prepared and served by volunteers to anyone who visits.

"The food is good — better than my mom's," said one teenager, who called the gurdwara a place that is "peaceful" and "chill."

It is now one of two gurdwaras in Mill Woods. Thirty years ago, Sikh residents might have travelled to the gurdwara on St. Albert Trail or the small make-shift gurdwara once held in local school gymnasiums.

But with a flourishing south Asian population in Mill Woods, it's perhaps no surprise that Sikh places of worship were constructed.
Women line up at the food service at Gurdwara Siri Guru Singh Sabha in Mill Woods. (CBC/Min Dhariwal)

"The gurdwara is a focal point for gathering together, praying," said said Pal Singh Purewal. "And also in the gurdawra we get how to live life properly according to the teaching of  (the faith)." 

"And there is another role, that is political. We learn from speakers here of our history of the gurus, our history of the nation, and moreover this is a platform from which our possible future candidates take power."

Purewal arrived in Edmonton in 1974. Over the years he has watched the Sikh population grow from a few thousand to more than 50,000 in Edmonton and surrounding communities.

"I think this is one of the best communities to live in in Edmonton. I am very happy and have enjoyed every moment."

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