WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Frs. Bob Kasun and Mark Gazin work with parishioners to create a welcoming community.
Edmonton's 118th Avenue is one of the city's oldest streets, with a reputation for being one of its toughest neighbourhoods.
So when two Basilian priests, Fathers Bob Kasun and Mark Gazin, came to Edmonton three years ago, they took on the task of sparking stewardship in the inner-city parish.
"Stewardship was already existing in St. Al's, and we developed what was already there. We initiated stewardship at St. Clare's," said Kasun.
The majority of the St. Alphonsus parishioners do not live in the neighbourhood, but choose to travel there for Mass. Most of these commuter parishioners want to belong to the parish because of this revitalized focus on stewardship and helping the poor.
St. Alphonsus Parish has forged a link with the Edmonton Inner City Housing Society (ICHS) after the group opened a small apartment building nearby. Kasun was eager to work with the stewardship committee to hold welcoming activities aimed at integrating new residents into the neighbourhood.
"We recognized that some of the people moving into that apartment have been homeless or come from substandard housing conditions or struggling with a variety of personal issues," said Kasun.
The parish hosted free shopping days, in which parishioners contributed good quality household items that were made available to new residents. Those residents came by and chose whatever they required, including dishes, glassware, small electronics, bedding, kitchen items and small appliances.
"The number one priority of the Church is evangelization. The number one priority of the archdiocese is evangelization. Now we're using the term 'new evangelization.'
"That's how we see ourselves fitting into the mission of the archdiocese and of the universal Church, that this is a doable way for us to be an evangelizing presence in the inner city," said Kasun.
The last two years they have held a street barbecue in the summer, and a hot dinner in the winter. Word is spreading about the events, as attendance increased for both in the second year.
"The street barbecue has been held for the neighbourhood, with a special invitation to residents of the ICHS housing projects. The hot dinner (recently held Feb. 11) was for the ICHS residents as well," said Kasun.
Families are welcomed to the church for a meal, and the children receive candy and gifts. The room is made beautiful to receive them, and they are treated with utmost dignity. Kasun can already sense that there are some bonds of recognition and familiarity being built. The residents who have attended are appreciative and gracious.
"The idea is that we're not trying to win converts, although that would be nice, but we're trying to assist the poor," said Kasun.
"Since we are an inner-city parish, this is one way for us to evangelize, by being a hospitable and welcoming presence."
Gazin said the events help not only in reaching out to ICHS residents, but also to the wider neighbourhood.
"We've recognized in the three years we've been here that there's a need to reach out to this neighbourhood. There are all kinds of social difficulties and issues here," said Gazin.
With this revamped outreach to the poor, the parish is now in the process of rewriting its mission statement. The refocusing is aimed at giving it a more specific task in helping the low-income people of the 118th Avenue area.
"It's interesting that some of our parishioners have grown up in this area call it the 'hood. We've started calling ourselves St. Al's in the 'hood," said Gazin.
St. Al's has declined over the years in its number of parishioners, and supporting themselves through collective donations is next to impossible.
"Being an inner-city parish also means we're poor. We're poor because the parish is very small," said Kasun. "It used to be a huge parish, but the demographics have changed and now it's small. Fundraising for the parish is important for our survival."
To offset costs, they host a concession at Commonwealth Stadium. They sell items at football games and concerts, with all profits going to the parish. Gazin said the concession has been a gentle way of attracting non-churchgoers into community life and the Church.
"The really beautiful thing is how it's built community in the parish. It's multigenerational, so you've got 70-year-olds and you've got 16-year-olds, the whole gamut, working together to keep St. Alphonsus viable because its parishioner count alone wouldn't do it," said Carla Smiley, a St. Clare parishioner who directs the archdiocesan stewardship program.
St. Clare's Church established a stewardship committee with eight enthusiastic members, including two youth. The parish has forged a link with Boyle Street Community Services, which manages a 62-unit apartment block in Abbotsfield for low-income people, many of whom were previously homeless.
The church held a drive for household items for those tenants. Parishioners donated so much stuff that Boyle Street Community Services rented storage space to store the excess.
"They will have enough gently used household items for many years to come," said Kasun.
The parishioners also plan to have a strong Catholic presence in the apartment building. They want to teach crafts and cooking classes, drive tenants for appointments and do pastoral visits.
Also ongoing at St. Clare's Parish is assisting Edmonton Catholic Schools' Our Lady of Grace Crib Program. Parishioners contribute baby items for young mothers still in high school who have chosen to keep their babies rather than abort them.
"We have been told there are over 80 single moms in the Catholic high schools of Edmonton. Those girls would receive varying degrees of support," said Kasun.
Forging friendships with former street people has been a difficult undertaking. Kasun said making these connections has been uphill work. But all in all, he has not lost hope.
"Perhaps the struggle is more important than the achievement of results. We're trying to think long term," concluded Kasun.