The eucharistic miracle of Cowley, Alberta
On July 18, 1946, Father Gino C. Violini stood before a small wooden church in a little town nestled in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies in Southern Alberta. St. Joseph’s was a forlorn, nearly-abandoned little mission church.
A small group of people gathered around this man dressed in mourning. They said they didn’t need a priest; Cowley didn’t need a priest, and if it ever came to pass that they needed one, they would inform Bishop Carroll of the fact. Furthermore, they didn’t want to see him reading his breviary, and he could get rid of that cassock.
He celebrated his first Mass at St. Joseph’s the following Sunday. There were nine people in the pews. Well, he had to start somewhere, and he delivered the best sermon ever, in his opinion, to those nine people. The following Sunday, there were only four who had come to adore their God.
The next two years were not crowned with success. The collection was laughable. He could afford a loaf of bread which he’d cut into seven parts, one part for each day of the week, and feasted on dandelion salad. Winter is an especially cruel season in Cowley, and he’d find his blankets snow covered when he awoke in the morning, as the rectory walls were split open from the many seasons that had dried and shrunk the logs apart. His first Christmas collection was a dollar and thirteen cents. The church was no warmer than the rectory, so the water would freeze in the cruets, even though he placed them on a little coal stove.
Father had had it. One day he sat down and wrote a sixteen-page letter, addressed to Bishop Francis P. Carroll, the gist of which was — this town is a write-off, and I want to stamp the dust of it off my feet. The Bishop rejected each and all of his requests for a transfer, and told him to stay put. He had full confidence in Father Violini, and he expected him to bring about a full Catholic revival in this parish, which had been so long neglected. After the latest of these rebuffs, Father was ready to pray for a noble death. But he was in for a great revelation.
On the feast of Corpus Christi, he awoke early and headed for the church for morning prayers. As he walked to the church, he noticed the front door hanging off its hinges. He hurried in and gazed at a scene of great destruction. The walls were in shambles, the statues destroyed and then he noticed the tabernacle had been split open and the consecrated Hosts were scattered down the main aisle. One by one, he gathered them up, counting each one. They were all there except the large Benediction Host which he could find nowhere.
It was raining, The gray sky reflected his anguish. He notified Father Harrington of the Crowsnest deanery who quickly organized a search party of some two-thousand people. They searched Bellevue and Hillcrest, Blairemore and Coleman; some came from as far as Michel and Natal in British Columbia, yet none of the people of Cowley would help. The search party combed miles of Highway 3. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police picked up two suspects at Cowley, and questioned them at Blairemore. They had stolen a pickup truck, and abandoned it down the highway when the police had discovered them.
Father Gino recognized them as transients from Lethbridge who had been seated next to him at a baseball game a couple days before, and who were looking to find work in the coal mines at Crowsnest Pass. He listened to the questioning by Sergeant Parsons: “Remember, it may not mean much to you or to me, but you fellows stole his Jesus.” Father explained the meaning of the Blessed Sacrament to them, and how precious it is to Catholics. He then offered to drop all the charges if they would tell him where they had discarded the Host.
Touched by his explanation, they began to show remorse and offered to help find It. One admitted to having discarded it through the truck window just before the police took them into custody. He didn’t know what it was, but he knew it was incriminating evidence. The rain had hardly stopped when they all piled into the police cruiser, the two suspects still handcuffed. Father calculated that if the Host had been dropped as these two men had said, the search parties would surely have found it if the rain had not dissolved it. It was about six o’clock that evening when they arrived at the spot. The sky was clearing; there was a bit of blue in the West.
As they rounded a corner east of Bellevue, they all saw the Host suspended in midair beside the highway. Beautiful rays of colored light shone from it. Even before the car had stopped, Father leaped from the car and ran towards this astonishing sight. Sergeant Parsons was right behind him. Father fell to his knees in adoration, overcome with joy and wonder. Sergeant Parsons did likewise, and landed in a pool of mud.
Father stood up and reached for the Host. It looked as white and fresh as the day he had consecrated it. As he touched it, they heard: “Father Gino, please take me back to Cowley.”
Here was Christ on the road, asking to be returned to a desecrated church; to a parish that Father had long wanted to leave. As they returned to Cowley, Sergeant Parson’s eyes constantly left the road to gaze at the wonder Father held there, beside him. The Bishop arrived the next day. He told Father Gino that he would be the one to rededicate the church. The Bishop prayed with him in the devastated sanctuary. As he finished, he turned to Father Gino to say: “Great changes will soon take place in this parish.”
Sergeant Parson came to ask for instruction a few days later. His wife and children soon joined him, and later two of his constables from Pincher Creek. As time went on, more and more Catholics began to return to their church. The parish mission was so popular that the beer hall shut down when it was in progress. The patrons, many of whom were not Catholic, would carry the bar stools to the church to listen to Father’s sermons. They even had to take out the pot-bellied stove to make room for everyone.The small church that had previously been almost abandoned was now crowded with people every Sunday.
Kathy KOE, The memories of Father Violini