Novelist Jeanine Cummins uses these lines from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda´s poem “The Song of Despair” as an epigraph in her novel “American Dirt.” The novel tells the story of a mother and son from the State of Guerrero in Mexico who wage an unbelievable struggle for life and freedom from the violence that engulfs this state and others in Mexico.
Just the other day I received a phone call from Paloma, a young mother from Guerrero who is in hiding with her husband Santiago and three small children. I have known Paloma since she was born. She has no formal education, but she is an incredible young woman and a great mother. Santiago’s two brothers were recently murdered by members of a crime cartel; Santiago managed to escape, but everyone in the village knows that his name is on the hit list. I helped the family contact a human rights organization that is trying to get them asylum in another country. However, due to the COVID pandemic, all of that paperwork is presently on hold, and the family remains in hiding.
Impoverishment, violence, corruption, discrimination, impunity, injustice … these are the daily fare of too many indigenous people living in the mountains of the State of Guerrero. The reason that the above-mentioned lines from Pablo Neruda come to my mind is that Mission Mexico has for twenty years been a “fruit” for many in the midst of the “thirst and hunger” of this reality; it has been “the miracle” for many in the midst of the “grief and ruins” of this reality.
Since the year 2000, Mission Mexico has been accompanying the people of “the Mountain” of Guerrero. Approximately 500,000 people from three indigenous cultures (Na´savi, Me’phaa, Nahua) live spread out among 700 towns and villages. Mission Mexico has partnered with several trustworthy Mexican organizations to promote projects related especially to health, education, and self-sufficiency. Transformation of such a difficult reality has never been easy, but Mission Mexico has earned the gratitude of thousands of families living in this poorest region of the country of Mexico.
Now there is COVID. Everything has changed. People have gotten ill and died. It is hard to give numbers because most of the people seldom go to a hospital; medical care always involves expenses. People have lost jobs, due to the closure of all kinds of businesses. Financial assistance from illegal workers in the United States who typically send money to their families each month has diminished.
Education has been particularly hard hit. At the present time, there is no face-to-face, classroom education in the Mountain of Guerrero. Everything is meant to be online learning, using either television or the Internet. This presents an almost impossible situation for thousands of families in remote villages in the mountains.
I used the expression that “everything is meant to be online learning” on purpose, because many teachers, realizing that their students have little or no access to computers or television, are going to the villages with photocopied worksheets: they leave “homework” with the students and return two weeks later to pick up the completed worksheets and to leave more. It’s not an ideal situation for many reasons: teachers risk contagion during their travels; many parents are illiterate and can’t assist their children; if a student falls behind, there is no remedial assistance. But I admire the teachers for trying to do what they consider is best for their students.
Mission Mexico began helping sixteen years ago to build the Champagnat High School of the Mountain, a residential school for impoverished indigenous youth; it is run by a Mexican religious order, the Marist Brothers. And Mission Mexico has a bursary program for university students from particularly needy families. The hundreds of students from the high school and university are involved now in online learning, which often means that students have to move to a town where there is Internet service. The support for the high school and for the bursary program is vital to the success of the students in this endeavor.
However, it is almost impossible for Mission Mexico to meet the “usual” goals in terms of financial support. COVID has hit the Diocese of Calgary too. The level of donations to Mission Mexico has diminished. This is understandable, and I assure the people of the Diocese of Calgary that their “friends” in the Mountain of Mexico are praying for them.
I also hope and pray that as the “thirst and hunger” and “grief and ruins” of the indigenous peoples here hit almost desperate levels, God might touch the hearts of people in the Diocese of Calgary to extend their generosity, so that Mission Mexico might continue accompanying these very needy people is this time of very real need. Every looney or tooney helps.
Please consider going to the donation page on the website missionmexico.com or giving during the special collection that the Diocese of Calgary is promoting in parishes on December 12 & 13, the weekend of the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Your solidarity will change lives here.
Having the obligation to attend professional development training with some regularity, and presenters seeking to have their audiences more engaged, I am often witness to grown adults frantically looking around as soon as they hear we’re going to break into groups. The desire to belong, and even more the fear of being alone, is strong within us.
Though attributed alternately to the writers of “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little” or “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn,” the quote runs that trying to explain a joke is like dissecting a frog – you gain understanding while losing your subject. This can be said also of discussing friendship. Much of its charm lies in what is unspoken.
Aristotle said there are friendships of utility and convenience – we get something that makes our way easier; there are also friends who bring us pleasure – being with them is enjoyable. But the philosopher really points to those who spur us on to being better. In the language of our faith, these relationships help us mutually perfect one another; they foster virtue. And no doubt they are also useful and pleasurable. Finding such people and making and keeping such relationships can involve lots of trial and error.
Friendships usually start with those near us, whom we encounter more than by accident. Over time we feel an attraction to this other personality and discover what we have in common. It is upon this that something of substance can be built. We give and take in an easy-going and natural process. When there are difficulties, we invest to make a fix, and we continue to grow.
For most of us, the challenges of our current day are different in kind though perhaps not in degree from what has come before, or will come hereafter. Now as always we can find opportunities to be friends more fully and deeply, to those who are already in our social circles and those who are not yet.
Recently required compliance with the imposed COVID-19 restrictions has disrupted many aspects of regular life, including our contact with others. The normal ways that we have informally cared for one another are no longer the same. While we can lament that loss, we can also be grateful for the chance to extend both how and to whom we show care. In justice, those who have first claim upon our energies are family and friends, and those in greatest need.
Every liturgical season offers renewed opportunity to become more like Jesus. Advent in particular calls us to make straight and prepare, to ease what is difficult for others. These are expressions of friendship. And we can make them even for those with whom we have no visible connection, as expression of charity, as acts of service to others in the Body of Christ. If it is Jesus’ will to be Friend to all, and we are friends to him, the deepest of connections exists already.
“It’s like getting a hug from God!”
That’s how Sharon Hagel describes the experience of receiving a hand-knitted ‘prayer shawl’. These beautiful wraps aren’t simply warm they are also imbued with prayers for the comfort and assistance of whoever ends up wrapped in their folds. So whether the recipient is a grieving widow or a sick child, they get a card explaining how they were prayed for and how God is an ever-present help in times of trouble.
Hagel and a dedicated group of knitters have been meeting at the Martha Retreat Centre in Lethbridge for longer than Hagel can remember. For two hours, over six to ten weeks, they knit, pray and converse. Even when Covid restrictions limited the size of the group, they welcomed new members to this ecumenical endeavour. Hagel says, “We’re all there for the same purpose, to support the needy.” During the group’s biannual sessions many prayer shawls are completed because participants often work on knitting at home too.
For Hagel it has become a regular part of her prayer life. “I sit with the Lord and I knit,” she says. “I say, OK Lord, whoever this is for, be with this person.” Many hundreds of wraps later, Hagel and the informal group of knitters continue to offer a tangible sign of God’s love to those in need of a loving embrace.
A key pillar of the diocesan I Am Blessed campaign is to act decisively in aid of the needy. While most Catholics do this sporadically, a few go above and beyond. Recently, I spoke with two such women in Lethbridge who have quietly spent decades helping others by sharing their talent for knitting and crocheting. As I spoke with Sharon and Jenny, I was moved to consider how I might use my own modest talents in a pro-active way, not simply to amuse myself and my friends, but to further the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. I hope these stories might inspire others too.
For over 15 years, Jenny Feher has been crocheting afghans for residents of long-term care homes. “It began when Fr. Ed Flanagan mentioned there was a need in the hospital,” Feher says. “I stopped for a while but then, after my husband died, Fr. Wilbert Chin Jon suggested I might start again. The need was still there.”
Feher, a lively member of All Saints Parish in Lethbridge, prefers to work on her craft while watching TV. “If I wasn’t doing this I’d go bonkers,” she says with a laugh, “I don’t sit there feeling sorry for myself, I’m too busy counting!”
Feher’s practical ministry has produced scores of colourful lap blankets over the years. Most are distributed over the Christmas season with a message of love and hope for the recipients. Visitors to local care homes can testify to how many of these striped treasures endure, and are seen tucked into wheelchairs or across bed covers. Grateful family members sometimes send thanks to the parish, never knowing who made the gift which warms their loved one. Feher is matter-of-fact about her outreach. “Everybody’s got their talents,” she says humbly while crocheting on.
Lacroix’s interest in church history turned into a mission to restore the cairn, replacing the fencing, enhancing the landscaping and even designing a new highway sign. He navigated government and ecclessial regulations, rallied together benefactors, organized tradespeople, poured over legal documents, befriended local landowners and contributed a substantial personal financial investment. He persevered for seven years to see his vision realized.
“It should be on every tourist map,” said Lacroix. “Once you are up there with the ranchlands all around, you are transported a 100-years back because it’s not much different probably from that period in the 1870s.”
The historical site is located on a small 24-by-24-foot patch of land in Rockyview County, 3 km off The Cowboy Trail, just north of the Hwy 22 and Hwy 8 roundabout, between Bragg Creek and the TransCanada Highway.
Metis layman Alexis Cardinal built a log cabin there in 1872. The following year Fr. Constantine Scollen OMI, established the mission, and Fr. Leon Doucet OMI joined him two years later in 1875, at which point the mission was moved near Fort Calgary.
From coast-to-coast, people of faith will give special thanks this weekend for the Canadians whose life’s work produces the food we find on our grocery store shelves and kitchen tables. Bob Bateman appreciates the gratitude and prayers. But the High River grain farmer has a bit of a confession. While he likes to celebrate Thanksgiving with his wife Karen and their four kids, he gives special thanks when harvest is done. “It’s always a big relief to get the harvest off because you work so long and so hard to get that crop in the bin.” This year, his harvest wrapped up in September—and Bateman, who’s already planning next year’s crops—has been thanking God ever since.
In Southern Alberta, the Thanksgiving holiday typically coincides with the harvest of an edible bounty that ranges from potatoes to pumpkins, carrots, cabbages and onions. The region also produces bread wheat, the durum wheat used to make pasta, sugar beets, canola, high-quality barley for brewing beer, and a growing number of pulse crops sold to international markets that want Alberta’s beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils.
Growing wheat, barley, canola and field peas on land that overlooks the majestic Rocky Mountains, Bateman says there were times this harvest season when mechanical problems threatened the operation. “I told Karen, I think the good Lord is teaching us patience.”
Knowing that harvest-time field fires were common in their area due to dry conditions in August and September, he and Karen were profoundly grateful when they discovered and repaired a mechanical issue before it caused a fire. Looking back, “I know we were being watched over and protected,” says Bateman, a parishioner at St. Francis de Sales in High River.
Kyle and Carla Gouw farm near Taber, where they grow onions, fresh peas, sugar beets, silage corn, barley, alfalfa and beef “This year was the exact opposite of last year,” notes Gouw, who attends mass at St. Augustine in Taber. In 2019, early snow ended harvest operations before they were complete. The Gouws harvested some of last year’s crops in the spring of 2020. This year, they were done harvest by early October.
Gouw says it’s tough for him to think about being especially grateful at Thanksgiving. “I feel like its Thanksgiving all year long,” says the father of four. Like Bateman, Gouw converted to Catholicism. Both men attend the parishes where their wives grew up in the faith.
The son of a Dutch immigrant, Gouw says his relationship with the Holy Spirit comes naturally. “Farmers spend a lot of time on their own. And when you’re alone, you’ll often find yourself talking to God.”
Fr. Mariusz Sztuk, parish priest at High River, knows both men and their families. “What I see in both of these guys is they have respect for the field.” Raised on a farm in Poland, the priest feels a kinship with people who share his own appreciation of the land. “Both of these guys have this sense that the land is a gift given to them. They believe they need to take care of what they have.”
“We take pride in the quality of food that comes off our land,” adds Bateman. “Producing a very safe product and improving our land, that’s important to us.”
Written by Joy Gregory for Faithfully
One of Calgary’s newest vegetable gardens is located in the backyard of Elizabeth House (EH), a maternal care home that’s now growing ready-to-eat plants alongside healthy babies. In a world hungry for good news, this project fits the bill, says Michelle Haywood, program manager at Elizabeth House.
Opened by the Catholic Diocese of Calgary more than 20 years ago, Elizabeth House provides supportive housing to at-risk pregnant and parenting women who need a safe place to live. Seeded into two new raised beds, this year’s inaugural garden is busy growing everything from lettuce to tomatoes, carrots and squash. It’s also nurturing at least one young resident’s interest in vegetable production—and it all began with a group of Catholic men who dared ask the folks at EH a simple question: How can we help?
The raised beds, like every other landscape revitalization project undertaken at Elizabeth House since 2017, were built by the St. Peter’s Council of the Knights of Columbus. That’s the year the council’s Grand Knight Peter Dugandzic reached out to Haywood. That conversation laid the foundation of a relationship that’s flourished over four years, thousands of dollars and hundreds of volunteer hours.
“What the Knights have done here is amazing, but it’s about more than landscaping,” notes Haywood. “There’s also a sense of being cared for by this group of gentlemen offering their hands and hearts to help us. It’s hard to put that kind of support into words.”
Love in action
By 2018, Dugandzic was leading a group of Knights of Columbus in some serious hands-on work. Together, the men transformed the home’s weed-filled backyard into a summer oasis, complete with new sod and a new patio, outdoor furniture, a barbecue, perimeter shrub beds and an underground sprinkler. That same year, another council based in Airdrie provided the labour to re-side EH’s home and detached garage.
Last year, the Knights tackled the home’s front yard, again adding fresh sod, shrubs and irrigation.
“Everybody was pretty excited when Peter brought the idea to the council,” remembers Lu Scarpino. Sworn in as the Grand Knight at St. Peter’s this July, Scarpino was the council treasurer when the project began. “Elizabeth House is doing great work and it’s nice to be able to support that. I think we’ve built a relationship that will continue for many years,” adds Scarpino.
Fr. Jonathan Gibson agrees. The pastor at St. Peter’s parish, Fr. Gibson says the relationship between the knights and Elizabeth House reinforces the governing principles of the Knights of Columbus. Charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism have all been strengthened by the project, says the priest. He views the relationship between the Knights of Columbus and Elizabeth House as a real-world example of how these knights live the heart of the gospel by doing work that cares for the women and children who live at Elizabeth House.
With the vegetable garden beds built and seeded, Dugandzic and Haywood are now focused on relocating a grotto built on the grounds of the original EH site in the Mission district. The stone work will be done by the same skilled tradesmen who built the grotto and one at the new Our Lady of the Rockies church in Canmore. The statue of Mary is being repainted by Dugandzic’s wife, Dorothy Voytechek. The new grotto will include a glass panel to protect the statue from the elements.
The grotto will be added to the backyard; already a place of refuge for residents, their children and EH staff, says Haywood. Given the complications of COVID-19, she knows the Knights at St. Peter’s didn’t have their usual opportunities to fundraise in 2020. That means some of the costs incurred were covered by individual knights and their families.
Dugandzic, who’s already working with Elizabeth House on projects for 2021, says he launched the EH project as a way to invigorate the Knights he led. Looking back, he admits the project’s success goes way beyond the physical spaces they created. “Elizabeth House is dear to our hearts. We like the work that they do. That house is nearly always full and it feels good to know our knights have helped make it an even more special place.”
Written by Joy Gregory for Faithfully
If the last several months have reinforced anything, it is the extraordinary grace of an ordinary moment lived well. Faced with an abrupt “stripping away” of the extras that made life very full, our little family has had to work hard to claim, in simplicity and joy, the identity of domestic church. It has been challenging and edifying to see the ordinary, mundane moments through the lens of faith.
In the slowing down, we are becoming more aware of the opportunity these moments present to us. We have come to understand more deeply the invitation to elevate them and give glory to God through them. We hunger and thirst for Christ in the Eucharist, for the community life of our parish, for song, and the opportunity to embrace our friends. Yet this hunger has also made all the more clear to me that my little family is the microcosm of that greater Church reality! We are the image of Trinitarian love to the world, through our faithful and fruitful love for each other. As St. John Paul the Great reminds us in Familiaris Consortio, “...the family has the mission to guard, reveal and communicate love, and this is a living reflection of and a real sharing in God's love for humanity and the love of Christ the Lord for the Church His bride.” And so we seek ways to tangibly image His love to our children, and through them to those around us. It is incredible how ordinary realities can become imbued with incredible spiritual symbolism. Take, for instance, a picnic!
With four small children there is nothing perfect about the planning, preparing, and living out of a picnic adventure! There is mess, there are spills, there are little hands fumbling at sandwich making and mommy working very hard to keep her patience, while daddy sweats to load enough supplies in the car for what seems like a month’s trip. There is immense effort in the instruction, between the extra time everything takes and the imperfection of the end result. Truly, my humanity rebels a little against the effort when it could be done so quickly and neatly by only me! However, I know that this is a perfect moment of learning in the schools of service and forgiveness. Inevitably I will slip in my patience once or twice as we prepare our food or load it all up. I apologize and ask for forgiveness, and they willingly grant it. I have come to realize that family life is made all the more vibrant by the ready asking for and granting of forgiveness. Certainly, the outcome of our preparations will be rustic. Yet, I am convinced that we have no idea how these moments of family unity, service to each other, and joyful celebration imprint themselves as bookmarks of joy on our children’s little souls.
Every good picnic begins with the preparation. As we plan what we will bring and how we will prepare it, we look to both simplicity and beauty. We pause to admire the vibrant red of a strawberry, the perfection of the inside of our watermelon, or even the gorgeous seedy crust on a loaf of bread. I say out loud, “thank you Lord for the gift of this beautiful food!”. In that moment our children are formed in the habit of gratefully walking through the day communicating with their Creator. We remind them often that grateful people are joyful people. Is there a more beautiful reflection of God’s love to the world than our joy? Possibly not! Even more profoundly, we can recall that the word Eucharist comes from the greek, eucharisteo, or thanksgiving! In this way our simple, thankful, picnic preparations remind us of the Bread of Life.
The time comes to enjoy the fruit of our labour. With our feet in the earth and our lungs filled with healing air, again we give thanks for beauty so tangible as to point our hearts directly to the Giver of all these good gifts. While we enjoy our simple picnic meal together, my husband and I meet each other’s gaze. We do not need to use words to communicate to each other that we are rejoicing in this sacred moment. Our sweet children, noticing that gaze, feel safe and sound in our family’s love. Their little hearts know, despite the chaos that may be in the world around us, that life is very good and we are held by Love. This is the extraordinary grace of an ordinary moment lived well.
Written by Emily Packard for Faithfully. Emily and her family are parishioners of St. Patrick's Parish in Calgary.
Photos courtesy of Emily Packard
History of Mission Mexico
“The first book gives an overview of the issues faced by the people. Book 2 is our response. The photographer, is a young man, from one of the villages, who has worked closely with us over the years. Actually, I guess he is no longer young! I bought him his first digital camera 18 years ago and he is now a full-time photojournalist.
The following links will take you to a PDF of the books that I keep on my personal website. Just scroll through and you will have a good understanding of the many wonderful groups we have partnered with and the smiles of so many whom we have been blessed to be associated with over the past 20 years.”
It’s been more than a year since I was ordained as a Permanent Deacon in the Catholic Church, and what a year it has been! Guiding me during the four-year formation journey was a combination of prayer, effective mentoring, spiritual direction, self-reflection and practical experience.
An instrumental topic to me, and that of my spiritual director, has been the transformation of one’s ego. Every person he says, “whether they are aware of it or not, is engaged from the moment of birth in a titanic struggle to lead a life led by the spirit, or, a life led by the attractions of this world. He is fond of saying, “throughout our entire lives, but most especially a man in formation must grow increasingly aware of these two forces, each clamoring for our attention. One force leads to life, and the other to death”.
The battleground in this great seesaw for our soul is a person’s ego. It can serve as both sword and shield, our greatest ally, or, our greatest enemy. The successful path to life sees the pouring out, a little at a time from our old self (ego), then, filling the void with the love of Christ. Thus, guided by this new mixture of love, we gain greater strength to support our future actions and ministries.
All throughout my life, but especially during my diaconate formation, I came to fully realize the necessity of allowing this constant pouring out and re-filling, as a catalyst to mold myself anew. Following that which promises life, I opened my heart wide to the workings of the Spirit and allowed my self-identity to shift toward the truth of Christ. Infused with a clearer sense of the necessity of living my life closer to God, I invited my wife and my family to join me in this new reality of love.
My spiritual director says that formation for a new deacon never stops and once ordained, the deacon must continually be open, and vulnerable, to the revelations which Christ wishes to share with him. A new deacon must continually desire to hold his ego aloft, so that with Christ’s blessing, it may receive further refinement from the Holy Spirit. This willingness to constantly seek to have his ego molded by the Spirit of Christ, this change of heart, is at the very core of diaconal formation he says. Without it, no man can truly serve successfully in the capacity of deacon.
This continuous transformation of one’s ego is key for us all. We must let go of doing things our own way, and supplant them with God’s way. One must pour out the old self (one’s former worldly attractions) to receive the new from God. Gradually, our willingness to seek Christ over that of the world is God’s goal for us.
Written by Deacon Laing for Faithfully
As many as 500 people will make their way to St. Mary’s Parish Hall in downtown Calgary’s Mission District this coming Sunday afternoon. Drawn by the promise of a warm place to sit and a hot meal to eat, they’ll make their way in footwear ranging from sturdy winter boots to wet and worn-out running shoes. While most will arrive unaided, others will lean on canes or walkers and some will push strollers or wheelchairs. They’ll eat in shifts, alone or seated alongside family and friends and while all will leave with their physical hunger sated, the vast majority will also carry lighter hearts. For behind the bowls of salad, the hot coffee and the steaming plates of food breathes something truly magnificent: Love.
That love comes from the simple fact that for 49 Sundays of the year, Feed the Hungry (FTH) at St. Mary’s Parish Hall is the most popular place to eat in downtown Calgary and while most come to eat, some come to serve.
That awareness of the “something great” is what prompted a group of four Catholic high school chaplains to organize their schools to sponsor a FTH night on Sept 8, 2019. In hindsight, “the timing wasn’t ideal, since that was the first Sunday of the new school year,” says event coordinator Dawna Richardson. Even so, the chaplain at St. Mary’s High School says the event was a phenomenal experience and one she’d consider organizing again.
From idea to execution
The idea started with a comment by Theodoric Nowak, Director of Social Justice and Outreach Ministries for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary. Nowak, who met with high school chaplains, parish priests and pastoral workers early in the year, noted FTH needed sponsors for three Sunday dinners. Sponsors pay $5,000 and commit to providing 100 volunteers.
Chaplains from St. Mary’s, Bishop O’Byrne, All Saints and Bishop Carroll came aboard after discussing the idea with administrators at their schools. “Each school agreed to find 25 volunteers and I divided up the shifts so each shift had a mix of schools represented,” explains Richardson. “This way, each school had their share of the jobs everyone wants to do (like serve meals) and jobs that are more difficult to arrange (like washing dishes).” The four chaplains and some staff members from the schools volunteered from start to finish.
To avoid the hubbub of the first week of school, organizers raised the money during Lent 2019 and handled the field trip permission slips before the summer break. When Richardson’s school had a few openings left in early September, Bella Nguyen was one of the new Grade 10 students who stepped up. “It was really wonderful being there where so many people were working together,” says Nguyen. Now a member of St. Mary’s Student Action Leadership Team, she’s grateful for opportunities to show her Catholic faith in action.
Service is a blessing
Bishop O’Byrne chaplain Deborah Eberle says the experience “was a blessing for each student that came forward. It was eye opening, especially for our first-time volunteers.” She credits the FTH experience, which she’s shared at school celebrations, for a rise in the number of new volunteers who participate in social justice projects, including one where students make sandwiches for the Mustard Seed.
Because the four high schools draw from different socio-economic demographics, each of the four chaplains worked with her own school to raise their share of the $5,000. St Mary’s held a number of fundraisers during Lent. At O’Byrne, students paid to “force” a social studies teacher to stay after school and play his least-favourite video game. “The more they gave, the longer he played.”
Eberle and Richardson say the experience drove home the fact that students in Calgary’s Catholic high schools are looking for ways to be of service. “I just knew it was a good idea and that we could work together to make this happen,” says Eberle.
“It’s not difficult to get students involved in projects like this. We’re just providing an opportunity for them to do what they want to do,” adds Richardson.
FTH is about more than helping people who are hungry, she adds. “It gives vulnerable people an opportunity to be taken care of by people who care about people. It’s great for our students to see this kind of love in action and to be part of it and to know that what you have is not only given to you, it’s given to you for the common good, for the good of all.”
Written by Joy Gregory for Faithfully
Photos submitted by Dawna Richardson
Tonight, as I was driving by a parking lot in the bleak and snowy weather, feeling downcast and discouraged by difficulties from recent weeks, I saw a guy dumpster-diving in a clothing donations bin in the dark. Pulling over to ask if there was anything I can do to help, I was shocked to see a guy probably in his 30's, not older than me.
He said what he needed most was a warm pair of gloves to make it through the cold night, as his was full of holes. Since all the stores were closed, I offered him mine, though they were rather worn. He hesitated, but I insisted that he tried them on – they fit. The look on his face was one of genuine happiness and gratitude, over just my old worn pair of gloves. My heart ached. We made a run to Tim’s to get some food, and I let him know about the Feed The Hungry program every Sunday at St. Mary’s. He shared with me that he went to a Catholic school growing up, so I asked him if there was anything I can help pray for. Looking away, he stood silent for what seemed like a minute, neither speaking or moving. Then, with tears in his eyes, he asked me to pray for his two kids whom he hasn’t seen in a long time. I promised I would pray for him, and in your charity, I ask that you please pray for Mike and his kids too. He was so grateful, but to me he was the real blessing tonight, as he snapped me out of focusing on myself and my own problems. God bless Mike, and may he receive all the graces and help needed to be reunited with his kids. #iamblessed
Shared by Dr. Thomas Fung, parishioner of Holy Spirit Parish in Calgary, Vice President of Calgary Catholic Medical Association. Photo credit: Dr. Thomas Fung
During the 2018-2019 school year, Shannon Griffin, principal of St. Damien School, a Calgary Catholic Elementary School contacted me about how her school could partner with the Christian Life Centre and the Sisters, Faithful Companions of Jesus to do something good for our Church and world. I knew that the Centre offers a special retreat each January, free of charge, for unemployed people, and that finding funding for that retreat is a challenge, given the current downturn in Calgary’s economy. The retreat does nothing to help people find a job; rather, it is a “heart-helping” retreat to offer support, encouragement and a renewed appreciation of each one’s personal gifts in a time when people feel quite vulnerable and often depressed. The weekend experience is called “The Gift of Hope”.
Together, the principal and I devised a plan: I went out to her school and met with all the students, by grade-level groups. I told them about the unemployment retreat and asked, “If people do not have enough money to pay their bills, would they have money to go to a retreat centre and attend a retreat that’s meant to help their hearts?” “No,” they chorused. So, I invited them to go home and offer to do four little jobs that are NOT their ordinary chores and to ask their moms to give them 25 cents for each job. When they had earned four quarters, they were to trade them in for a looney and bring it to school. If every child at school was able to bring in a looney, the school could pay for someone to make the retreat. They would be retreat sponsors!
Then, Ms. Griffin wrote a letter home to the families, explaining what we were trying to do and giving the target date for the looney collection. And a few weeks later, I went to the school, and they held an assembly and presented me with a cheque for $1,103.55! I couldn’t believe my eyes! I had no sooner received the cheque when a teacher came up and asked, “How much more would we have to give to pay for four retreatants?” When I told her, she took out her cheque book and wrote another cheque for $36.45 right on the spot! What a blessing!
When I returned home and told the Sisters and the others who work at the Christian Life Centre, there was such joy. So many were touched by the children’s and families’ generosity. We feel a real sense of being partners in hope with the school community at St. Damien School!
Written by Sr. Madeleine Gregg, fcj
Photo submitted by Sr. Madeleine.
Parishioners of St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church on the Piikani Nation will arrive at the Christmas Eve mass a bit early; the church is relatively small and the place is likely to be packed. Upon entering the wooden building, the faithful will pause near the front door, using their hands to waft sweet grass smoke over their heads and arms. Smudging is an indigenous spiritual practice that’s used to bless or purify people before meaningful ceremonies. At St. Paul’s, the smudge bowl is side-by-side with the holy water. It is a practice Fr. Roy Jayamaha embraced when he arrived at the country church nearly four years ago.
Having worked in Catholic communities in Pakistan, where more than 98 percent of people practice Islam, the Sri Lankan-born priest knows that meaningful inter-cultural dialogue requires action. “I feel the main pastoral work here is to lift high the spirit of our people and respect their rich culture, I always try to find connections to meet them with Creator."
St. Paul’s is located in Brocket, a rural community about 20 km from Pincher Creek. Since Fr. Roy’s arrival, the church has added a tipi-shaped tabernacle. Other altar and church hall adornments also feature the work of local indigenous artists.
Parishioners appreciate the integration of their cultural practices and symbols, says Vera Potts, who has served as parish council chair since Fr. Roy arrived. A mother of three, grandmother of seven and great-grandmother of 11, the 80-year-old Potts takes that same attitude of a willing servant to work with her every day at the local health clinic, where she still works full time.
A residential school survivor, Potts admits she can be overwhelmed by fearful memories of that experience. “I’ve learned to forgive. But being human, it’s hard to forget and a lot of triggers happen still today.” Nevertheless, her faith provides consolation and hope. “I can trust in the Lord. He’s the only one in the world who could pull me through what I experienced.”
Once open mostly for Sundays and funerals, St. Paul’s began offering Sunday and daily masses when Fr. Roy arrived in 2016. While this country pastor typically celebrates the 5 p.m. daily mass alone, people are coming to the Sunday service. Many of them stay after mass to share food and fellowship in the basement hall. These informal gatherings include full meals after masses that celebrate major feast days or important events. The potlucks attract Catholics and non-Catholics alike and all the food is donated. “In our culture, the elders teach us never to be stingy with food. We share food. We live by that,” says Potts, noting that Christ taught the same.
Parishioners also volunteer their time to maintain the church and grounds, which includes a grotto and a small-scale replica of the first church that once served a Catholic residential school located about 7 km from present-day St. Paul’s.
Since Fr. Roy’s arrival, St. Paul’s has upgraded the church, liturgical items, put a new roof on the replica church, renovated the church hall and painted the rectory. All of the work was financed by parish fundraisers, Mission Council, good friends and generous benefactors. This fall, parishioners raised $2,000 towards the church insurance bill by volunteering with a local catering company. Earlier in the year, they added another $1,000 by hosting a giant garage sale.
“Father Roy makes us really work,” says Potts with a laugh. “All of what we have is through fundraising. We’re not a rich reserve, but we take a lot of pride in what we have.”
Like Fr. Roy, Potts is pleased that 19 Piikani children received First Communion at St. Paul’s in 2018. Another four were confirmed by Bishop William McGrattan in 2019. With time, Potts is hopeful more people will bring their children to mass and receive the sacraments. “We need parents to be really taking responsibility for teaching their own children the importance of Christianity.”
Her comments mirror Deacon Thomas O’Toole’s thoughts about his work at St. Paul’s. O’Toole, who also serves as a deacon at St. Peter’s in northwest Calgary, admits some might note the differences between the parishes he serves, one in a First Nation community of 3,500 people, the other in a suburban neighbourhood of Alberta’s largest city.
O’Toole focuses on the similarities. He hopes parishioners at both churches “grow together in love for Jesus, Mary and Joseph such that they will be a light for others.” Like Potts, he also wants Catholics “to engage with the sacraments and come to know the great love God has for us.”
For Fr. Roy, a willingness to be a witness of Christ’s love sometimes means inviting locals, including some homeless men, to share a meal with him at the rectory. He also takes homeless men with him when he participates in an annual highway cleanup day and offers a hot meal in exchange for their labour and company. “As far as I know, our parish is the only parish that goes for highway cleanup with their pastor and the deacon,” says Fr. Roy.
Drop by drop, a river forms
That same spirit of sharing what you have prompted Potts to suggest an addition to this year’s Christmas Eve mass. Earlier in the year, Fr. Roy gave jars to parishioners. Since then, each family has “put coins in there and at midnight mass they can put their jars at the crib,” says Potts.
The offerings, made with love and humility, show the community’s love of Christ and its appreciation for their church. “The sacred rituals and the holy place are so dear to their hearts,” says Fr. Roy.
The little country church he shepherds also hosts AA meetings, gospel music nights and interdenominational healing services. Plans are underway to restore and preserve the Our Lady of Lourdes grotto built at the residential school some 75 years ago. Every year, St. Paul’s holds an outdoor mass at that grotto, which many locals visit as a pilgrimage. The annual mass attracts residential school survivors who attended Catholic and Anglican schools in the area.
Fr. Roy is hopeful that recent changes at St. Paul’s are evidence of what Pope Francis has called the Church to do. Speaking at the closing mass of the Amazon Synod held in October, the Pope said, “how many times, even in the Church, have the voices of the poor not been heard and perhaps scoffed at or silenced because they are inconvenient.”
Reflecting on his time at St. Paul’s, Fr. Roy says faith and fellowship are fueling positive change at Piikani Nation. “Drop by drop, it’s becoming a river.”
Written by Joy Gregory for Faithfully
Photos submitted by St. Paul's in Brocket.
Many are internally displaced or flee to neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan. Some, Syrians in particular, have settled in parts of Canada, including Calgary, but for those who stay or have gone back, their homes are often destroyed and require a lot of rebuilding. “Sometimes people don’t feel safe moving back to their town,” said Gabriel. “There have been cases of kidnapping, harrassment, discrimination. There have been times that they’ve been killed because of their faith.”
Due to difficulties crossing check points, Palestinian Christians aren’t always granted a pass to attend Easter Mass in Jerusalem. “The locals can’t experience Easter there, but the tourists have no problem,” said Gabriel.
She organizes pilgrimages with CNEWA to the Holy Land for those wanting both a spiritual experience and a snapshot into the life of local Christians. The next one is being planned for 2020. “The Christians are always very grateful when we come and visit them. They feel supported,” said Gabriel.
In August, Gabriel spoke at the national Catholic Women’s League (CWL) Convention held in Calgary because CNEWA is one of the charities CWL supports at the national level. Two of the projects CWL funds are a centre in Jerusalem that provides tutoring for at-risk youth and a centre near Bethlehem providing healthcare for women and their babies.
National CWL President Anne-Marie Gorman went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and met some of the local Christians, including entrepreneurs who left to seek education in the United States, but returned to open a brewery. “Things seem to be so unstable, so I’m thinking if they have enough faith to go home and settle back in the Palestinian occupied territory, it behooves us to support them as best we can,” said Gorman.
“Our past spiritual adviser Bishop Martin Currie said the Holy Land is in danger of becoming like Disneyland, just a tourist site that people go see what it used to be like. But when I was there, it was all about these people being living stones. These are the people that haven’t left.”
St. Bonaventure parishioner Kathleen Kufeldt is one of many Calgarian donors who financially support CNEWA. For several years she has organized a raffle at her parish for CNEWA during the annual CWL fundraiser. “I think we are so blessed here to practice our faith. My heart goes out to the Christians in the Middle East,” said Kufeldt.
“I feel it must be one of Jesus’s wounds that the area where He was born and grew up is so difficult for His followers.”
Written by Sara Francis for Faithfully
With her long blonde hair, sunglasses and a big smile, Jackie sat on her walker beside her friend, in line for dinner outside St. Mary’s Cathedral Hall in Calgary. She’s come for Sunday dinner at Feed the Hungry for a decade.
“The people are nice, the meals are good and sometimes I don’t like sitting at home by myself because I live alone,” said the mother of one grown son. The 59-year-old jokes that most people think she looks too young to have five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Jackie lives in a downtown apartment, getting by with help from her disability payments. She uses a walker because of her unsteady balance due to Parkinson’s disease and tremors. And a history of being abused has left her with debilitating anxiety and stress.
Jackie was one of the 557 people served a warm meal on the last Sunday in May. On average, 500 people are served a four-course meal 48 Sundays per year. To keep the meal running smoothly, it takes about 100 volunteers, six part-time paid assistant coordinators and one full-time paid program manager. Anyone can sponsor a Sunday dinner for $5,000 — a parish, school, company, family or individual.
A group of parishioners piloted the idea on Easter Sunday 1993, and it has been running continuously ever since. This year marks their 25th anniversary. The outreach has been sustained simply through word of mouth, and all these years later word is still getting around.
“People are still walking through this door in what is supposed to be this rich, affluent city,” said Sartre Jean-Gilles, Feed the Hungry program manager. “We really don’t survey our guests, but most of them are definitely homeless or working poor. It’s just people trying to make ends meet.
“Anybody is welcome at Feed the Hungry. I would really like neighbours to come have a meal and see what’s going on in their neighbourhood. I think a lot of people shy away from it because it’s a validation of the situation they are in. I don’t think a lot of people would want to come if they didn’t have to.”
Lining the sidewalk between St. Mary’s Cathedral and Hall was a crowd diverse in age, sex and nationality. A separate section in St. Mary’s parking lot was reserved for women, families, people with mobility issues and the elderly.
Jessica, her boyfriend Chris, and her two children aged 7 and 8 found out about the dinner five years ago through word of mouth. They come when times are tight. The couple is on disability payments; Chris for bipolar and a brain injury and Jessica manages life with fetal alcohol syndrome.
“It’s hard for me to be reliable and stable, to be committed to work with my FAS. I have tried over the years. We just find it very useful when we do come (to Feed the Hungry). It’s good food and service. I feel safe here.”
Emily Kennedy, a social worker and Feed the Hungry assistant coordinator, said not to underestimate the value of a reliable meal, served with a smile in a safe and hospitable space.
“It’s so important to have a place to come together as a community and experience the dignity that might be missing in a shelter,” said Kennedy. “It’s not just about feeding someone, it’s about giving someone happiness and hope in their day.”
And it’s not just a meaningful outreach for the dinner guests. David Holy often makes time on a Sunday to volunteer with his family because serving with Feed the Hungry has been so enriching for him.
“You see the face of Christ here,” said Holy pausing a moment from his table service duty. “With these people, you are truly serving Christ. Selfishly, I probably get more out of this experience than the people I serve do. It feels good to serve and I feel like Christ showers me with blessings.”
Holy wanted his son-in-law Lewis Cutter to have the Feed the Hungry experience while he was in Calgary visiting from Spokane, Washington. And the timing worked out well since this particular meal was low on volunteers.
“People are nicer, kinder than how they come across or you may build up in your head,” said Cutter, a first time volunteer. “It puts your own gifts from God in perspective; things you have afforded in your everyday, like a hot meal. One positive experience like this and it makes me want to do it more. It’s a life-giving experience.”
When a dinner is short staffed, Dana Colborne comes to the rescue. For over a decade, this mother of four has been on the call-out list, coming in last minute to ensure there are enough volunteers. For the last two months, she’s served every Sunday.
“I love to cook. I love feeding people. I thoroughly enjoy visiting with the people that come here and find out their story. And I feel good that they are getting a good meal at least once a week.”
Jean-Gilles encourages anyone interested in a meal, volunteering or sponsorship to check out the website feedthehungrycalgary.ca. This program depends on funds from our Together In Action, annual appeal.
“We are always looking for sponsors and volunteers, especially in the summer. This is a year-round thing,” said Jean-Gilles. “I see these people leaving the hall and I know they are going to be hungry in eight hours. It’s just such a basic need.”
Written by Sara Francis
Freedom to live authentic Christian lives according to one’s conscience is under attack by an aggressive secularism and it must be resisted, said Canada’s former Ambassador for Religious Freedom.
Father Deacon Andrew Bennett, an ordained deacon in the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, and the current Cardus Religious Freedom Institute Director, worries that if robust conscience rights are eroded in Canada, people who don’t hold the prevailing secularist values will be marginalized.
“That’s not democratic, it’s not right, it’s not just,” he said. “There is a concerted attempt to demonize those people who hold different views on the nature of human sexuality, on the nature of the dignity of the human person, and that’s unacceptable.”
“A lot of us often silence ourselves, or self-censor ourselves for fear that if we speak our minds or live according to our consciences, we will be demonized.”
But Bennett said it’s the moral obligation of Christians to speak out in charity and truth or otherwise risk moral injury and distress.
“For all of us as Catholics, we must live the faith truthfully and fully both in our private lives of faith and public lives of faith because our baptism calls us to be present in the world. And we must take courage, through our participation in the sacramental life of the Church, to step out into the public square and say what is true.”
He points to the examples of St. Thomas More and Blessed John Henry Newman (soon to be canonized a saint on Oct. 13) for strength and guidance in the area of conscience rights.
“We need both martyrs (like St. Thomas More) those who will witness to what is true in terms of religious freedom and conscience,” said Bennett. “These are people who might lose their jobs or status in their career, but they will be examples. We also need confessors (like Blessed John Henry Newman) those men and women who will step forward and give an account for why they hold the beliefs that they do, and to do so in a way that’s convincing to people.”
Bennett will speak about the necessity of conscience rights at a reception following Calgary’s Annual Red Mass on Oct. 30 at St. Mary’s Cathedral. The Saint Thomas More Lawyers’ Guild of Calgary hosts the Red Mass as an opportunity for judges, lawyers, elected officials, paralegals, file clerks, law students and all members of the legal community to pray for the pursuit of justice and mercy at the beginning of the new judicial term and to build community among those in the law profession.
The Red Mass celebrates the martyrdom of St. Thomas More who was executed by order of King Henry VIII for refusing to approve his divorce. It was first celebrated at the Cathedral of Paris in 1245, dates back to 1896 in Canada and re-instituted in Calgary in 2015.
“That is why the Red Mass is a celebration of the rule of law rather than the rule of men,” said Tom Ross, Saint Thomas More Lawyers' Guild of Calgary Chairman. “Part of the beauty of our legal system, compared to others in the world, is that we expect our laws to be honoured regardless of who may be adversely affected by them or who is in government. They apply equally to all.”
Written by Sara Francis for Faithfully
As we approach Extraordinary Missionary Month this October, Pope Francis has asked the Whole Church to revive its missionary commitment and reinvigorate its work to bring to the world the salvation of Jesus Christ. We’ve compiled some resources to help you prepare for this revitalization in your missionary work. You can also share what you believe is your life’s mission and then post a picture or video with your mission to your social media account (download here). Let’s show our solidarity with the global Church by participating in an activity and sharing on social media by using the hashtags #MyMission and #CatholicYYC.
Please access the resources for the Extraordinary Missionary Month here:
Nearly 900 Catholic Women’s League (CWL) members from across Canada gathered at the Hyatt Hotel in Calgary Aug. 18-21 for the 99th Annual National Convention.
Each year members debate and vote on resolutions, forming League policy and guiding their advocacy work. The CWL members passed two resolutions concerning the rights of the unborn and a nuclear arms ban.
The first resolution to pass was — Canada to Honour its Commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Canada ratified this United Nations agreement to protect the unborn 20 years ago, yet there is still no Canadian legislation protecting the unborn at any stage of development.
“When you sign something and ratify it, you’d expect some legislation to appear,” said CWL President Anne-Marie Gorman. “What we are looking for is legislation. You said you were going to do it, so why hasn’t someone done it. We’ll be asking that question.”
The second resolution to pass asks the Canadian Government to honour the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. CWL wants the federal government to support, sign and ratify this treaty which the UN adopted in July 2017; so far 25 countries have ratified it.
Once members adopt a resolution an executive committee prepares to bring the concerns to federal politicians in Ottawa on behalf of all 78,000 members in the coming months.
Each convention also has a spiritual, educational and cultural component. Four Calgarians spoke on this year’s theme “Care For Our Common Home.” Dr. Peter Baltutis, Dr. Timothy Harvie, Sr. Madeleine Gregg and Marilou LeGeyt unpacked the topic from both theological and practical perspectives.
Dressed in a white sweater jacket and matching pearl earrings Sr. Dorothy Ederer, a Grand Rapids Dominican Sister from Michigan, delivered a high-energy, entertaining and emotional keynote address titled “What is our common home? We care for our homeland, our homes, our hearts.”
“Everyone take out your phones,” said Ederer. “What would God be calling to tell you if He were on the other line?”
Ederer proceeded to tell her captivated audience for the next two hours how each person is called to be Christ-like and loving toward their neighbour using a series of personal stories from her time in ministry and mission, interspersed with inspirational songs and tidbits of wisdom. She highlighted topics such as daily prayer, finding your passion and reconciliation.
“What kinds of values do we want to leave to our children or those coming after us?” asked Ederer.
She used the phrase “more is caught than taught” to highlight how her mother would keep a holy hour each morning before getting on with her day. “Kids imitate us,” she said.
“Find your passion, live it, but don’t compromise your morals and values,” she said.
She urged the Church to be a place where people are loved and forgiven.
“To forgive yourself is one of the hardest things we have to do as Christians,” she said. “If you hold anger in your heart it’s destroying you. It’s like taking a glass of poison and pouring it down your throat.”
Her last message was one of hope and love. “I want to tell you how loved you are.”
Conventions are an opportunity for renewal and Gorman said she hopes all CWL members will take what they’ve learned and share it with their communities.
“I hope they leave appreciating who they are and that God loves them,” said Gorman.
Written by Sara Francis for the Diocese of Calgary
Photos courtesy of Annie Chirka, St. Peter's Calgary
See more photos here: https://st-peters.ca/cwl/
When the new Central Library opened in downtown Calgary late last year, the building joined a growing list of architecturally-innovative structures that are attracting global attention to Calgary’s business district. In the midst of all that worldly attention beats the heart of a small Catholic church, St. Francis of Assisi. Dwarfed by its high-rise neighbours, this little church on 6 Avenue SE boasts its own architectural accolades. More importantly, it nurtures the souls of the community it serves, says parish priest Fr. Joseph Canh Vu.
Established in 1931, St. Francis opened as a “chapel of ease.” Located within the parish served by St. Mary’s Cathedral, St. Francis was ideally placed to serve a small residential community that included many new immigrants on the then-northern border of downtown Calgary. The current building opened in 1957. Its unusual A-frame design contributes to the sense of intimacy church goers feel upon entering the sacred space. In its early years, the building earned its architects, J. Stevenson & Associate, an honours award at an agricultural exhibition held for Western Canada.
Entrusted to the Dominican Fathers since 1988, St. Francis of Assisi Church attracts people from all over the city, says Fr. Vu. Assigned to St. Francis in February 2019, Fr. Vu says many parishioners live in the downtown core. Others discover the church while working in the area and opt to make St. Francis their home parish. Weekend masses are also popular with tourists, conference attendees and downtown workers.
Since there is no street parking on weekdays, the mass attendees at St. Francis arrive on foot or via transit. Although street parking is permitted on Sunday, many churchgoers commute; some are dropped at the church and others walk from their nearby homes or workplaces.
To accommodate the business crowd, daily masses from Tuesday to Friday begin at 12:05 pm. and end at about 12:50 pm. “It’s marvelous when I see downtown office workers who spend their lunch time to attend mass, it’s wonderful.”
Marcia Canton, a nurse from Freeport, New York, attended several of the noon-hour masses in late July. In Calgary to attend an international nursing conference, Canton says the opportunity to attend a daily mass was a welcome addition to her day.
Fr. Vu says he often meets mass goers who are in the city on business. Others are tourists and they tell him they appreciate the chance to worship at St. Francis.
The popularity of the sacrament of reconciliation is another indication of the parish’s importance, says Fr. Vu. He offers the sacrament 20 minutes before and after mass and it’s always busy. While a typical noon-hour mass is likely to attract between 75 and 100 people, Vu notices that attendance rises on Wednesdays and Fridays and during the holy seasons of Advent and Lent.
The priest is also grateful that his parish is blessed with active altar servers and has separate choirs for Saturday’s vigil mass and all three regular Sunday services. To increase the church’s role in the lives of its parishioners, he recently encouraged three parishioners to take a pastoral care course. Fr. Vu worked in a hospital environment in Ottawa for many years before moving to Calgary. He knows that sick parishioners and people who find it difficult to get to mass appreciate being able to receive the Eucharist.
The parish is also a spiritual refuge for the city’s indigent population, some homeless, who live in the downtown core. “It’s very good for the poor people to have this small church,” says Fr. Vu, who routinely greets mass goers as they come and go from his humble church. On various occasions, including Christmas, St. Francis offers grocery store gift cards to the needy.
Parishioner Luz Honorio reflected on the church’s importance in a letter to Fr. Vu. The letter calls the parish an accessible and authentic witness to Christ. Honorio also appreciates how the parish “upholds the values of humility and sincerity in welcoming all including the homeless and passersby who come to pray and to express their belief and gratitude to our Almighty God.”
One of Calgary’s most desirable residential neighbourhoods is also home to one of this city’s oldest ethnic churches, a spiritual and cultural jewel of a parish known as Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH) Chinese Catholic Church.
Nestled alongside Edmonton Trail on the western edge of Bridgeland, OLPH opened 65 years ago. Today, the parish ministers to a community of about 500 parishioners, most of them Chinese. OLPH holds daily services in English. Saturday’s 5 p.m. mass is said in Mandarin, with Sunday’s three masses in English, English/Cantonese and Cantonese.
Parish priest Fr. Joseph Nguyen says OLPH offers Chinese Catholics a worship space that helps “create a sense of belonging in Canada. [Here] the immigrant children can grow up in a tight knit community and grow up in a new country supporting and loving each other.”
The chance to worship in Chinese is often critical to nourish their faith. “They can understand the meaning of prayer better in their own language,” says Fr. Nguyen. “I would say there are two main reasons people come to our parish, language and culture,” says secretary Pak Tong. “Some of our parishioners prefer to attend a mass in their own language,” says Tong.
Others like the way OLPH incorporates Chinese cultural traditions. Chinese lanterns hang from the ceiling along the church aisle. On Chinese New Year, the church pillars are swathed in red and the priest and deacons hand out red envelopes associated with the special day.
Anne Lam, the editor of the parish’s bimonthly magazine, Echo, has attended several Catholic churches since moving to Calgary about 30 years ago. But her heart holds a special place for OLPH. “Other churches are closer to where I live, but this parish feels like home,” says Lam. She and her husband Edward, now a deacon at OLPH, raised their daughter in this parish. “Our daughter has friends all over the city, but the friends she made here are special. They share a life time of memories from this parish.”
Since moving to OLPH in 2008, Fr. Nguyen’s led projects to beautify the front and side gardens, including the construction of an outdoor shrine to the Virgin Mary. “While church provides a sanctuary of hope and peace inside, the beautiful landscape garden outside our church offers a more welcoming and inviting atmosphere for parishioners, visitors and surrounding neighbours,” says Fr. Nguyen. “The garden allows people to mediate through nature and can bring them into a prayerful state before entering the church to see Jesus. The garden also helps de-stress and calm down the soul before parishioners enter the house of God.”
The church’s grotto is visible from the church parking lot. Passersby sometimes pray near the grotto fence.
The entrance to OLPH also includes a number of large aquariums, some donated by parishioners and others bought by Fr. Nguyen. “Children just love the fish,” says Lam.
A beautiful meditation area located near the side entrance is another OLPH jewel. It is separated from the nave by a faux stained-glass mural that complements classically-styled stained-glass windows added when the church was built. “People like to stop here to pray,” says Lam.
OLPH’s active ministries include programs for children, young adults and seniors. For most of the year, seniors meet at the parish hall two mornings a week. They visit and play games, then break for a potluck lunch or venture out for dim sum.
“Our parishioners come from all four quadrants of Calgary,” says Arthur Ho, who chairs the parish council. “The Chinese Catholic community previously at St. Paul and now at OLPH has always been my parish. This church is an important place for Calgary’s Chinese Catholics.”
It’s a special place for others, too, says retired caretaker Patrick Owens. Owens, who belongs to St. Mary’s parish downtown, rides his bike to OLPH almost every day. On Sunday mornings, he leads the rosary before the 8 am Mass; on week days he tends the gardens or sweeps the parking lot after summer storms. “I just love the Chinese people here. This is a special place and they’ve always made me feel so welcome, so respected.”
It may be unusual for a Catholic parish to host its own radio show, but that’s exactly what Mary, Mother of Our Redeemer has done for the past 22 years.
The one-hour Spanish radio program “Es Tiempo De Vivir” (A Time To Live) airs every Friday from 6-7 pm on 94.7 FM. Mary Mother Our Redeemer Pastor Fr. Shibu Kallarakkal and a team of about five parish volunteers air programming aimed at evangelization through testimonies, Bible study and catechesis.
“The aim is to reach out to the people with the message of Jesus Christ and His love and mercy,” said Kallarakkal. The multilingual priest, of The Congregation of the Sons of the Immaculate Conception, has served the Spanish/Italian community of Mary, Mother Our Redeemer since 2013.
The former pastor, Fr. Salvador Ahumada, founded the radio station in 1997 with about a dozen parishioners, many who had formerly worked in radio in South America before coming to Canada — some fleeing conflict in their home country.
Ingrid Trewin is both the radio show promoter and parish secretary. She’s been a parishioner at the parish since she was 11 years old, after she moved to Calgary from Nicaragua with her family in 1992. She recalls how the radio show drew her family to Mass.
“When we first moved to Canada we didn’t know there was a Spanish community, we didn’t speak the language, we didn’t know the city. Then, we found out there was a Spanish radio show once a week. The radio program team did everything to get us to church,” said Trewin.
“I would encourage everybody to listen, especially newcomers, people looking for a place to belong or people feeling like they are lost coming to a new country,” she said.
The radio show serves the Spanish-speaking parishioners of Mary Mother of the Redeemer, but it also attracts international listeners from the United States of America, Mexico and throughout Central and South America.
A few years ago, Fr. Kallarakkal started to question the viability of financing the weekly program and committing the volunteers to maintain the ongoing programming until a female listener from Colombia called to thank him for saving her life. She was about to commit suicide when she turned on the radio and heard Fr. Kallarakkal’s voice. She called him, and after speaking together for an hour, she changed her mind.
“She told me: Father for one reason or another I was turning to music before committing suicide and I heard the Word of God from you; probably this is a sign from God. I’m not going to do whatever I was planning to do.”
Fr. Kallarakkal is convinced that the effort it takes to maintain this parish-run show hosted at Fairchild Radio, a multicultural station in the northeast, is worth the time, energy and tithe.
Trewin also agrees: “It’s very helpful to have that little bit of God injected into you on a weekly basis. If you are not able to come to church due to illness, it’s a good way to get connected to God through prayer and song and the sharing that people do.”
Written by Sara Francis for Faithfully
She got a headache on the bus ride home from school. Her feet ache from shoes that fit this morning but now strain against swelling flesh. She feels the baby shift inside her pregnant body, and she is both exhilarated and exhausted. Sitting to unlace her sneakers, she starts to cry. Catherine Aghaegbuna heard the girl come in and sees her sitting at the bottom of the split-entry home, her shoulders quivering. Aghaegbuna takes a deep breath and welcomes the expectant mom home. Aghaegbuna is not her mother. But on this day, and at this moment, she is all the young woman has.
Trained in addictions counselling and community service work, Aghaegbuna works at Elizabeth House (EH). Started in 1996 by the Sisters of Charity of St. Louis, the house provides a safe and supportive home to pregnant and parenting young women who need a safe place to live. To date, more than 200 young women have benefited from EH, one of two charities operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary. (The other is Feed the Hungry).
Christians engaged in this kind of work often talk about the need to see Jesus in the eyes of the marginalized. An immigrant and a woman of colour, Aghaegbuna sees more. “I choose to work here out of my love for the youth and children,” says the woman whose typical shifts run from 5 pm to 7 am. When the mother of five looks into the eyes of the people she serves, she sees the eyes of her own children. She’s reluctant to say her parenting experience gives her an edge, but the parishioner at Corpus Christi admits that parenting her children, ages 27, 19, 18, 13 and nine, helps her through the rough spots at work. “When the women tell me, ‘I am not your daughter,’ I tell them plainly, ‘I have no reason to deceive you. I have children like you. I am a mother.’”
Moms helping moms
Since 2016, members of the St. Gianna’s Moms Group at St. Luke’s parish have made women and babies at EH house special beneficiaries of an annual Christmas campaign. Named after an Italian pediatrician who sacrificed her life for her unborn child, the moms’ group buys Christmas presents that include self-care items, make up and gift cards for the young moms. “We think about what we can do to make their day special, and some of the gifts include special notes of encouragement,” says group co-leader Michelle Widmeyer, a parishioner at St. Joseph’s.
Herself the mother of four, Widmeyer says members of St. Gianna’s feel blessed to contribute to the important work done at EH, where young women get help completing high school and preparing or starting post-secondary education or training. Life at EH also helps the women hone life skills that range from conflict management to cooking, laundry and housekeeping—all while carrying or caring for their new babies. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a young and single mother with very little support,” says Widmeyer.
That grassroots support for EH’s work is greatly appreciated, says Michelle Haywood, EH program coordinator. “We survive off private donations and are not funded by the government in any way,” explains Haywood, who often finds herself coordinating donations that range from money to supplies.
St. Michael’s parish, for example, recently donated a van load of baby and new mom supplies, as well as $4,000 in cash. “They provided everything from nursing bras to baby wipes. It was really something,” notes Haywood.
She also appreciates what members of the Catholic Women’s League and Knights of Columbus do to support EH. A group of Knights from St. Peter’s recently took a lead role in a major landscaping project. Individual Catholics also step up with support, including a woman from the St. Paul Centre of the Catholic school district who organized a donation drive amongst her colleagues, says Haywood.
Given how complicated the work at EH can be, program support translates into emotional support. “We serve vulnerable and at-risk women, and this can be very difficult work. When people care about what we’re doing, it’s like an emotional boost to our residents and staff,” says Haywood, whose professional work is tempered by life experience. The mom of three, including one born during her 12 years with EH, Haywood is a university graduate whose first baby was born when Haywood was still a teen.
To learn more about Elizabeth House, or to find out how you or your organization can support the program, visit www.elizabethhousecalgary.ca or email Michelle Haywood at email@example.com.
Written by Joy Gregory for Faithfully
For parents like Brenda-Lee Kearney, the mass is delightfully chaotic, yet peaceful. She and her husband Mike have an 11-year-old son with FASD, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. They love Jacob and they love their church. But bringing Jacob to mass is difficult and after Kearney approached her parish priest with an idea, the Special Needs Mass began.
The once-monthly, then bi-weekly masses became a regular 5 pm Sunday mass after pastor Fr. Jerome Lavigne moved to St. Pat’s in 2018. And the Kearneys are grateful. With a mission to create a loving, supportive and compassionate community that renews and restores faith and hope to families and children with special needs, the mass shows “God is really at work here in our parish,” says Brenda-Lee Kearney. Parents with special needs children often stay after mass for welcome fellowship. While most participants are from the parish, others attend as word of the mass spreads. “I believe most of us are parenting our kids in a community that doesn’t understand our reality. We are understanding of each other because we are living it.”
That message resonates with Fr. Matthew Schneider. “There is a natural sense of community when we come together to worship. Where possible, it’s nice to be able to add elements that make worship more meaningful to certain groups of people,” says Schneider, who said the Special Needs Mass at St. Pat’s on June 22.
A former Calgarian now living in Washington, D.C. where he’s working on a Doctorate in Theology, Schneider says one Catholic church in Washington hosts a regular mass that features an interpreter for the deaf. Other masses are conducted in languages other than English. He likes what St. Pat’s has consciously done to accommodate a group of believers often marginalized in the greater society.
In addition to the dimmer lights, the 5 pm Sunday mass features visual “cue cards” that tell parishioners went to sit, kneel or stand. The pictures show the appropriate action along with a simple message such as, “Please kneel for the communion rite.”
“Typically, we have the same songs at these services. It’s all part of dialing back on the sensory experience. Many of these children benefit from a very calm environment,” explains Kearney.
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers