This photo of a CSS counseling session with immigrants was taken in 1986.

January 16, 2012

Back in 1961, the Edmonton Archdiocese recognized needs in the community that were not being met by existing resources. Many people simply fell through the cracks, with needy children suffering the most.

Father Bill Irwin, then a young and determined priest, knew he couldn't stand by and decided to do something to improve their lot.

So, in 1961, with a budget of $5,000 and charged up by his favourite Bible verse – "Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" – he founded, with a staff of one, Edmonton Catholic Social Services.

Under his leadership, Catholic Social Services began providing services to people of all faiths and cultures.

Over the years, the agency expanded beyond Irwin's wildest expectations and today it is Canada's largest multifunction social service provider with more than 120 programs.

With a staff of 1,200 and an annual operating budget of close to $68 million, last year the agency helped more than 60,000 street kids, teen prostitutes, drug addicts, people with AIDS, orphans and immigrants in central Alberta.

"I think we have been making an impact on the lives of people and Father Bill gave us a very good foundation to do so," said Christopher Leung, who in 2002 became chief executive officer of Catholic Social Services and Catholic Charities.

Msgr. Bill Irwin

Msgr. Bill Irwin

"We have always been very true to our mission – and that's to enhance human well-being in a spirit of compassion, justice, freedom and solidarity," Leung continued.

"Even though we follow the teachings of the Catholic Church, we are here to serve people of all faiths and cultures, especially the most vulnerable – individuals with disabilities, refugees, families in crisis, people affected by HIV/AIDS and addiction issues – in whatever way we can."

Leung, who was recruited by Irwin from Caritas Hong Kong in 1981, will resign as CEO in a few months, probably in June.

"I said I would serve as CEO for 10 years and now the 10 years are over," he said. "It's been a great privilege for me to work here."

For a few months now Catholic Social Services has been marking its 50th anniversary with several public events involving staff, community, clients and supporters. It all began with the opening of Msgr. Bill Irwin School followed by outdoor activities in the seven major regions the agency provides services.


In May, with City of Edmonton approval, the agency will give the name of its famous founder – Msgr. Bill Irwin – to a major Edmonton park. Celebrations will conclude in June at the agency's annual meeting.

Irwin died in 2004 at the age of 76.

CSS spokesperson Marc Barylo noted that in the past 50 years CSS took many risks, including getting out of the United Way to start its own financial appeal – the Sign of Hope campaign. The campaign has never failed to meet its fundraising goals.


It also created programs that were challenged by some groups. "When we opened Kairos House for people with AIDS in 1987 we received thousands of pieces of hate mail," recalled Barylo.

"People wanted to pull the support from us because we were helping these individuals who didn't deserve it." Many of those people are now big supporters of Kairos House and other programs.

CSS programs such as the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder program created in 1999-2000 have been so successful that the province and other agencies have mirrored them and are currently providing similar services, noted Barylo.

The elder abuse program started in 1989 was the first of its kind in the West. People didn't want to talk about elder abuse at the time but now it has become easier. This program has also been mirrored throughout the city and the province.

"When you look at our anniversary you see the Body of Christ at work," Barylo said.

"My concern is I hope we don't get in the way of the Holy Spirit using us as instruments of transformation. I hope we are truly moving with the will of God in all these decisions and actions of our organization."