Called to action
In the fall of 2015, a committee of St. Mary’s parishioners, the FCJ Christian Life Centre Staff and FCJ sisters answered a global call for help and sponsored one refugee couple and their child from Syria, says Curran. Less than a year into that project, the committee discovered three fundamental truths about the Christian reaction to refugee sponsorship. First, the 12-month commitment mandated under federal sponsorship rules isn’t nearly long enough for the people you’re helping; second, when the people involved open their hearts to the process, 12 months isn’t long enough for the volunteers, either; and third, when you start to help people who need a particular kind of assistance, you’re likely to meet more of the same.
That last reality demands decisions about whether you step up or look away. “But it’s not really a choice,” admits Sr. Curran. “We do it because Jesus did it.”
The call to help more refugees arose soon after the group connected with the first family. As that family took its first steps towards settlement, Curran’s group found itself helping another Syrian family. Over time, they also helped two more. Since the newcomers all shared the same Melkite Greek Catholic tradition, it wasn’t long before members of the St. Mary’s and FCJ group were attending masses with the new Canadians. Determined to help the refugees develop relationships in their own cultural community, FCJ Centre also started to host an annual Syrian Christmas party with help from three Catholic schools in the downtown area, St. Monica’s, Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Mary’s. In 2018, that event attracted more than 130 people. It’s down from the 180 who came the first year, “but the people who come really enjoy it and the little ones love seeing a Syrian Santa.”
In addition to helping the Syrians connect with other Arabic speakers in the Catholic community, the group reached out to members of the city’s Turkish Muslim community. Called by their mandate “to live out of our abundant resources,” the FCJ Centre now invite their Muslim friends to an annual barbecue on the FCJ Centre grounds, says Curran.
She comes to school hungry and afraid. He walks the halls alone. Both are noticed by their high school peers, but the latter don’t often know what to do. Some will reach out, some will say a prayer—and thanks to a social justice initiative championed by Calgary’s Catholic high schools, others will mobilize for change.
Organized by the Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) and its 12 high school chaplains, the second-annual Social Justice Summit is a day-long event designed to inspire Catholic high schoolers who feel called to action, says Cathy Sandau, summit organizer and a consultant with the district’s Religious Education and Family Life department for grades 7 to 12.
“Our high school students are looking for ways to do Christ’s work in their schools and city and the theme of this year’s summit; We are the Hands and Feet of Christ, reinforces that desire.”
A proponent of the summit, Simoni believes the event helps students develop a greater connection to Christ while nurturing their faith through discipleship and evangelization. After last year’s summit, Simoni worked with students at Grandin to launch a social justice initiative to help economically-vulnerable students afford lunch.
Building on the success of a competition staged at last year’s summit, each of the 13 schools at the 2019 summit has been asked to present a 60-second video pitch to earn a $1,000 grant. The money will help the winning school launch or enhance a social justice program of its own. “It’s really wonderful to see what the students come up with,” says Marilou LeGeyt, outreach ministries coordinator with the Calgary Catholic Diocese.
Last year’s top prize went to Bishop Grandin’s affordable lunch program. “One of my favourite pitches was for a peer-to-peer support program for immigrant students at Father Lacombe High School,” recalls LeGeyt.
This year’s grant, sponsored by the Calgary Catholic Education Fund, is called the Bishop Henry Social Justice Grant and Simoni admits he’s excited to see what issues the students decide to tackle.
While the video competition is likely to be one of the summit’s highlights, Sandau is also excited about student reaction to the rest of the program. Participants will attend three of six breakout sessions led the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, L’Arche Calgary, Inn from the Cold, Mission Mexico and Development & Peace. The sixth session will be hosted by Dwight Farahat, a spoken-word poet and songwriter from Siksika First Nation.
Over the lunch break, students will visit a kind of social justice trade fair to interact with representatives from Providence Care Centre, CAWST (Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology), Calgary Homeless Foundation, Catholic Christian Outreach, Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, NET Ministries and Ten Thousand Villages. The Diocesan social justice department will also be represented, as will one of the Diocese’s major social justice initiatives, Feed the Hungry.
“Our goal is to give students a place to talk to each other about what they’re already doing in their schools and community and to learn what others are doing—and how they might get involved,” says Sandau.
“This is the first year I’ve been involved, and I’m really excited to build on the success of the inaugural year,” adds Sandau. “Young people of faith have so much to offer. It makes sense to connect students with the people and organizations who want their help—and to encourage them to develop new initiatives, too.”
Written by: Joy Gregory
Rob moved into his new apartment on Feb. 13, 2018. After six years of sleeping in a room that held up to eight men a night, he was eager to wake up in his own space. Since Valentine’s Day 2018 marked the day Rob would be able to get up when he wanted, he went to bed excited by the promise of the next day. After six years of not having a home to call his own, he looked forward to being able to make himself a cup of coffee he could drink while watching the morning news. He planned to sit at the table given to him by a new neighbour and watch a TV donated by another resident of his new apartment building. Life, finally, looked good.
But sleep was difficult.
“For the first week and a half, it was tough,” remembers Rob. He’d slept on the floor before, so the fact that he didn’t yet have a bed was the least of his worries. The real issue was the wall-to-wall silence. “At the DI (Drop In), there was always noise. Here, it was so quiet.”
Walking for change
Hundreds of people will participate in the Downtown location of four Coldest Night of the Year (CNOY) walks being held in Calgary on Saturday, Feb. 23. Money raised at the CNOY Downtown event funds two of the Calgary Catholic Diocese’s biggest social justice projects, says Samantha Jones, Event Coordinator, on staff with the Diocese. “This is a fun and family-friendly fundraiser and we really encourage Catholics to come out with their families and friends. You can walk two, five or 10 kilometres and the money supports Feed the Hungry and KAIROS Calgary.”
KAIROS is an ecumenical group of churches focused on Social Justice issues in Calgary. Its share of the money raised at CNOY Downtown goes to HomeSpace, a charitable real estate developer that owns 521 units of rental housing in 27 properties across Calgary. KAIROS used CNOY funds to help pay off the mortgage on an affordable housing project in Acadia. Money from the 2019 walk will help pay the mortgage on Bankview Apartments, the building where Rob rents one of 27 units rented to single people, couples and small families.
Affordable, safe, supported -- and quiet
HomeSpace properties are operated in cooperation with other community agencies, including The Alex, CUPS and Alberta Health Services, explains Rina McDermott, who works with HomeSpace. “It’s important to help people find a place to live. But people who have been homeless often need additional support. They may need help preparing meals or learning how to clean their units. At Bankview, CUPS provides that wrap-around service to our residents. We want them to be successful.”
This year, McDermott will walk the downtown route with her work colleagues and a group of Vincentians from St. Peter’s parish in the northwest Calgary. “St. Bonaventure, St. Patrick’s and the youth group from St. James in Okotoks are regular contributors, too,” says Jones, who’d like to see more Catholic churches and church-based groups support the walk.
“We typically get about 400 walkers—but there is room for 900. One of the best things about this event is that kids are welcome and the route we take often gives people an opportunity to meet and visit with some of our homeless neighbours.”
As an added bonus, the Saturday-night event includes a rest stop with hot chocolate and it ends with a chili supper sponsored by Boardwalk Rental Communities, one of the city’s largest housing rental property managers. Boardwalk also funds a Feed the Hungry dinner once a year.
Peace, at last
A year after moving into his apartment, Rob spends his days helping out around the building and working on cross-stitch pictures he sometimes sells. He looks forward to being able to use his balcony when the weather warms up—and he treasures its view of the city where he’s lived most of his life.
Unable to work but determined to stay busy, he sometimes goes back to the DI to help prepare and serve lunch and to visit friends. Having struggled with addiction, he never invites those friends back to his apartment; that would be too risky. Rob knows what it’s like to be evicted and he doesn’t want to live that pain again, especially not when he has it so good at Bankview. While he doesn’t know all of his neighbours, Rob volunteers to help cook when they gather for communal suppers. “I really like cooking. I did a lot of that at the DI and I like doing it here, too.”
These days, he also treasures the night-time silence at Bankview Apartments. The peace and quiet used to hinder his ability to fall asleep. A year later, that’s what “home” sounds like to Rob.
Written by: Joy Gregory
The lineup for a free hot meal organized by the Diocese of Calgary often begins an hour before the doors to St. Mary’s Parish Hall open at 3:30 p.m. Rain or shine, wind or snow, people come by the hundreds. Most arrive on foot, some aided by canes or walkers. Others come alone. The adults will all take a seat beside others gathered at the long communal tables, but some will never speak.
Those with children walk around to the hall’s back entrance. Pushing strollers, carrying toddlers, holding the hands of shy children and smiling at the antics of tweens and teens, they will be seated in the family section of the weekly supper known as Feed the Hungry (FTH). At one dinner held this past summer, a young mother travelled 90 minutes—taking three city buses—for the opportunity to take her three boys out for a meal. Illness keeps her from working. Her boys keep her from giving into despair.
Faith, hope and charity
A modern-day version of the Christmas story plays out near St. Mary’s Cathedral nearly every Sunday night of the year. Here, the menu includes a hot meal served alongside a good helping of faith, hope and charity.
A downtown Calgary institution since 1994, FTH welcomes as many as 500 people to its Sunday suppers. The event gives many of its guests temporary respite from emergency shelters. They are joined by parents with low income who welcome a break from meals made with items found in emergency food hampers; seniors parenting grandchildren; single people, couples and families couch-surfing through their wait for affordable housing; working parents for whom a couple of days off work to nurse a sick child means the month’s pay cheque no longer covers rent and food. Other guests may like to sleep “rough,” but welcome a tasty hot meal made and served by kind people.
Across the room from the family tables sit the less-than-sober. Every guest, regardless of age or situation, will receive table-side service of salad, a hot meal, beverages and desserts. Guests are welcome to ask for seconds and it’s not uncommon for the volunteer servers to step in when they see a young eater who’s not happy about the night’s fare. “Your little boy doesn’t like tonight’s entrée? Let me check with the chef. We’ll find him something.”
For a few hours once a week, there is always room at this inn.
It takes a village
Every FTH meal is sponsored by a parish, company or community group, says Program Manager Sartre Jean-Gilles. Sponsors donate $5,000 and agree to supply up to 100 volunteers. To keep everything running smoothly, another set of regular volunteers serve as Team Leads and oversee specific stations. The menu is managed by other rotating teams of volunteer cooks. Some cooking teams are organized around parish links. Others are staffed by groups of friends.
Bishop William McGrattan likes the way FTH garners widespread community support. While many of its benefactors are Catholic, others participate simply because they seek to serve the less fortunate. The Bishop is also a fan of how FTH enables children to serve alongside their parents.
On Dec. 16, an anonymous sponsor will treat dinner guests to live entertainment. Each of the diners will also receive a $10 gift card for a fast food restaurant. Those cards were donated by parishioners, FTH sponsors, vendors and volunteers.
Watching the first group of diners enter the hall, one of the Dec. 9 volunteers smiles. He’s been here before and he’s pleased to be back. “I’ve learned not to judge.” He doesn’t need to know why his guests are there. He’s just grateful they have a place to come.
Written by: Joy Gregory
Would you go to jail for Jesus? That’s the question the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary is asking people of faith—and a growing number of those who hear that request are choosing to walk into provincial and federal prisons on a regular basis.
As volunteers with the Diocese’s prison ministry, most go to pray with people who can’t leave when the allotted time is up. Retired seniors and working professionals, they know their ministry raises the eyebrows—and sometimes the blood pressure— of family and friends. Why would you do that? Aren’t you afraid? It seems risky to me. Their collective response?
Because Jesus asked me, I am not afraid, I am grateful.
“It’s a humbling experience,” says Elly, 78, of her regular visits to the Lethbridge Correctional Centre. There, she prays the rosary once a week, returning once a month for mass. Led by the Holy Spirit, she’s now thinking that’s not enough. “We don’t have enough time to just talk with the people.” Elly arrived at that realization while attending the annual prison ministry volunteer appreciation luncheon which welcomed current and potential prison ministry volunteers who have been attending an introductory workshop.
Organized by the Social Justice office, the introduction to prison ministry workshop included a discussion of prison ministry in the context of the Catholic faith. Participants were invited to a special prison ministry volunteer appreciation luncheon on Saturday, August 18. There, David Milgaard was one of the speakers.
Milgaard, who was jailed at 17, spent 23 years in federal penitentiaries for a crime he did not commit. At the luncheon, he likened volunteer visitors to the opportunity to breathe fresh air. Calling prison “a horrible place,” he credits the quiet witness of volunteer visitors with bringing Christ into his life. He also admits that happened over time. What he most appreciated about the people who visited him was news from the outside; tidbits of normalcy delivered to a life behind bars.
Jack, another former inmate, delivered a tainted version of that same message. Imprisoned in federal institutions in Bowden and Drumheller, Jack was matched with a visitor who simply didn’t show up. He was grateful, however, for the post-prison support with housing and employment that he received from Peter Worsley, a reintegration-chaplain with Bridge Ministries, a Mennonite Central Committee program funded in part by the Diocese. Worsley introduced Jack at the workshop.
Jack and Milgaard say life in prison was made tougher by the constant pressure of gangs. They also grappled with the ongoing temptation, fueled by a human instinct to survive, to park their morals at the prison gates.
The ministry-prep workshop, which will be held again in the Spring, is one of the ways the Diocese helps volunteers prepare to take on Christ’s work in the community, says Outreach Ministries coordinator Marilou LeGeyt.
That support is important to volunteers like Elly, who’s relatively new to this ministry. She says the volunteer appreciation luncheon, which included several deacons involved with prison ministry, strengthened her commitment. “It’s hard to explain. But every time I come home from the prison, I feel somehow that I’ve done what Jesus asks me to do.”
Written by: Joy Gregory
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, communities across Canada will mark that moment in history by ringing 100 bells. The ringing of bells emulates the moment in 1918 when church bells across Europe tolled as four years of war had come to an end.
In the Diocese of Calgary, we encourage all parishes to join in this celebration by ringing their church bells at local sunset time (4:54 pm in Calgary) on Remembrance Day, Sunday, November 11. The Bells of Peace Ceremony aims to gather a soundwave of bells as they toll 100 times from coast to coast to recognize the people who helped shape the Great War.
List of Catholic churches in the Diocese of Calgary that will be ringing the bells on Remembrance Day (Sunset time):
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers