Alberta’s annual tent revival for Catholic families started with a carpenter and an idea.
Bob LeBlanc was always known within the Open Door prayer group as an idea man. The charismatic group had been meeting for several years in St. Albert, Alberta, a historic French Canadian settlement-turned-dormitory suburb of Edmonton, the provincial capital, when he got his best idea yet.
“He had a vision of a multigenerational crowd of people gathered under a big tent,” recalls Mac MacDonell, an early participant along with his wife, Suzanne. The prayer group, which LeBlanc, a local carpenter, had led for several years had been discussing Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on the family, Familiaris Consortio.
“Bob wanted to do a family conference,” said MacDonell, “to gather families of like mind, with deep faith, but who wanted more knowledge of the teachings of the Church — to let them know they weren’t alone.”
The idea took a year to bring to fruition: The first family conference drew 350 in its first year, 1995, and now surpasses 1,500 attendees of all ages, most of them camping out under the stars by the Catholic chapel on the shores of Lac Ste. Anne 50 miles northeast of Edmonton — all meeting under the tents of LeBlanc’s original vision.
LeBlanc died in 2003 after a long and painful illness, but the ministry is carried on by the original core group of the Beiers, the MacDonells, Robert Boisvert and Jim Rogers under the name Catholic Family Ministries.
The leaders have the approval of Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith. “They are clearly, clearly committed to the family as the domestic church and the home as a place of formation in the life of Christ,” he told the Register. “When I see a group like this, I can’t help but be edified and encouraged.”
Proof in Youth
Now, reports the organization’s publicity director, Maurice Beier, “The next generation is stepping up.” His son Brendan has led children’s groups for years and is in charge of all the youth groups. The LeBlanc’s daughter Katie is in charge of cooking for the volunteers, and their eldest son, Matthew, is on the board of directors and integrally involved as a driver, fetcher and general troubleshooter.
Katie, who is about to enter college for an education degree, explains that, as busy as the conference is, “It helps me refocus on my values because I’m spending all my time with people who think like me. My school and work friends don’t share my beliefs about church, moral issues or chastity.” But the families she grew up with in the prayer group and volunteering with at the conference — “we’re in the same boat, belief-wise.”
Large families and home schooling were two common threads among those attending the prayer group.
Beier recalls the families customarily meeting for brunch after Sunday Mass. “We always ended up discussing our faith. We grew as a community, and those of us who were home schooling would attend daily Mass with kids in tow.” Once a month the group would have a potluck meal, which they dubbed a “pot blessing” because, says Beier, “It had nothing to do with luck.”
The parents began watching tapes together featuring Catholic apologists such as Scott Hahn and Karl Keating. “We were sharing it with others, and our faith was becoming alive. And our children were being raised in the faith with others their age.” They were also forging the template for the family conferences.
Camping With Christ
After LeBlanc described his vision, a core of enthusiasts from the prayer group formed an organizing committee and hammered out the concept: It would be a campout in the prime of summer only a short drive from Edmonton, so food, transportation and lodging were easily managed.
There would be something for everyone — inspiring speakers for the adults, who would give separate talks for the teens.
There would be ongoing programs for early teens, ’tweens, toddlers and elementary students, with role-playing and skits looming large for the younger crowd, while the youngest got the camping equivalent of day care. The group gave themselves a year to plan and publicize, and with the Beiers already in the marketing business, and the evident need for what they were offering — intellectual and social support for family life lived faithfully — they perhaps should not have been surprised to draw 350 to the first event at a small retreat center.
So small, in fact, recalls Debbie LeBlanc, that the facility’s plumbing was overwhelmed, prompting the move to Lac Ste. Anne the next year.
Speakers have included Steve Wood of St. Joseph’s Covenant Keepers and Father John Corapi. This year the speakers were psychologist and philosopher Michael Pakaluk and wife, Catherine, an economist, and Alan Schreck, a theologian at Franciscan University in Steubenville.
The events now last from Thursday night to Sunday morning the first weekend in July. At first, it had been one day shorter, but this, Debbie LeBlanc recalls, “made everything too rushed — it was nothing but talks. Now there is more time for breaks.”
A “Men of Integrity” conference is on tap for February 2010. (Go to CatholicFamilyMinistries.com for details.)
“This has totally changed the direction of my life,” says Beier. “I never dreamed I’d be involved in this or any other ministry. It’s an awesome sight to see so many Catholic families, babies to teenagers.”
James and Jennifer Peloso have been making the four-hour trek from southern Alberta for nine years with their (now) family of seven. “I don’t have to drag them; the kids drag me,” says Jennifer. To be honest, it’s busy, especially for the mom, but there’s a lot for the kids to do.”
She is especially keen for her older sons, now in their teens, to hear the speakers addressing chastity issues. “They attend the local schools, and their friends are all paddling one way. We want our sons to paddle a different way. It’s good for them to see other Catholic families trying to live the way we do.”
Steve Weatherbe writes from
Victoria, British Columbia.
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