EDMONTON (CCN) — When the seeds of the Catholic Family Life Conference were sown in a small but zealous prayer group in St. Albert 20 years ago, the young families had no idea it would become the major annual event it is today.
Led by Bob LeBlanc and his wife Deb, the group, rooted in the charismatic renewal, would get together after mass to discuss their faith and watch videos of apologists and converts to the faith for inspiration.
“It kick-started my faith,” said Maurice Beier, who was a part of the original group. “It really helped me to understand what we were doing and why we were doing it. It was just exciting.
“Our faith was exciting and we realized as we were doing this, we had young families and we wanted them to grow up knowing their faith and understanding their faith.”
LeBlanc brought up his vision of big tents and bringing in evangelists and, at first, everyone thought it was a joke. At the time, there was no event like it, but the seed was planted.
“It just kind of grew out of a need there was, a need for families to find a place — almost like an oasis — where they could be free to practise their faith and to learn more about their faith. Since then it’s just continued,” said Beier.
“It’s just a way for us to embrace our faith as the beautiful treasure that it is and now to defend it, because it’s being attacked everywhere. We realized as well as the family was under such attack. That was 20 years ago and it certainly hasn’t changed any.”
That first conference in 1995 drew about 350 people to Ephphatha House — immediately outgrowing the venue.
“What happened is we all encountered Christ, and our faith became real and we wanted to share that with others,” said Beier.
The next year they moved the conference to the Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage site, where the conference has drawn hundreds of Catholic families each year from across Western Canada.
This year the conference, which began on Canada Day, drew a record 800 families including more than 3,200 people.
What’s even more exciting for the original organizers is how a new generation of people are taking over the organization.
“Twenty years ago we had toddlers that we were bringing to the conference and now our children are bringing their toddlers to the conference,” said Beier. “It’s such an incredible sight and it’s not just one or two families that are doing this, this is hundreds of families bringing their extended families.”
Half of the organizing team is now in their 20s.
Bob LeBlanc’s son Matt LeBlanc, 27, of Legal, one of the next generation of organizers who had his own five children in tow this year, remembers attending the conference as a child purely for the fun of the event.
As he entered his teens and became more involved, the conference gave him a yearly opportunity to be challenged, energized and to feel connected to his dad who died in 2003, he said. The passion of the fathers has passed on to the next generation.
“They’ve been involved for the last few years and they’re extremely instrumental in what goes on,” said Beier.
“That is one of the great fruits from this ministry is that we’ve seen our children grow up in the faith, grab onto it, embrace it and want to share it with others.
“They have incredible energy and great insights as to what should be done or how we can do this better.”
The conference has seen increased programming for young adults, including a social evening, coffee house, and talks geared toward that segment.
After 20 years of trying to recruit Dr. Scott Hahn, one of the best-known converts to the Catholic faith, organizers finally secured him for a day of talks this year.
Hahn was awestruck with the conference, saying there is nothing like it anywhere in North America.
“What you have here is the blessed sacrament, what you have here in the campground, when I set foot here (I thought), ‘This is a big slice of heaven,’ ” he said during one of his July 1 talks.
The theme for the 20th annual Catholic Family Life Conference was Be Not Afraid. Participants were called to be bold, be brave and be faithful, as the original organizers were encouraged by the phrase of St. John Paul II, two decades ago.
“That was kind of the impetus of starting our ministry,” said Beier. “Be Not Afraid, and family, be what you are.
“It’s getting more difficult to live our faith especially when you’re surrounded by a culture of death and a culture of anything goes.”
Mass on each of the five days was celebrated by a different Alberta bishop, including Ukrainian Bishop David Motiuk who led the divine liturgy July 2. Other main celebrants were Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith, his auxiliary, Bishop Gregory Bittman, St. Paul Bishop Paul Terrio and Archbishop Gerard Pettipas of Grouard-McLennan.
The bishops’ involvement goes two ways, said Beier. It shows the importance of the family to the leadership, and it excites the families to see their bishops there.
“It gives us confidence that our shepherds are truly interested in their flock, in their people,” he said.
Some families came to the conference for the first time but an estimated 95 per cent of attendees, including Kamala Randhawa of St. Albert and her family, come back every year.
“What’s really neat is we get to raise our kids Catholic, and we get to raise our kids here,” she said. “A generation of children become adults here. My kids love this conference.
“It’s a beautiful real witness to see this,” she said. “Many speakers see this and say ‘Who says the faith is dead?’ This is a testament that the faith is not dead.”