Baptisms run about twenty a month at Our Lady of
Lourdes in Toronto, but every one is a special event. Deacon Patrick
Vesey welcomes Sarah Yamat to the church's community.
"SIRIYA'S A BIG GIRL NOW." With this announcement the proud father broke into an approving smile as he glanced over at his equally proud wife. The pastor, seated across from the young Sri Lankan couple, nodded encouragingly.
"Yes, indeed, she seems to get taller every month, doesn't she?" he responded, although somewhat bewildered as Siriya actually seemed kind of small for thirteen.
"No, no, Father, Siriya's a big girl now," the mother interjected, sensing the pastor's confusion. And then the penny fell the little girl had just had her first period; she was a woman now. With a knowing voice, the pastor enthusiastically agreed: "Ah, Siriya's a big girl now!"
That straightened out, pastor and parents made plans for a visit the following Sunday. That was the day that would mark the end of a traditional week of isolation for Siriya, who spent the time in her room, visited frequently by her mother and other female members of the family.
We arrived shortly after 8:00 in the morning, as instructed, and were met at the door of the apartment by a radiant young Eva, smartly attired in a new dress and high heels. She knelt, pressing her forehead to the floor, and then presented the pastor and me with the traditional betel leaf. Throughout the day, family and friends dropped by to eat sweets, admire the sari and scarves of womanhood, and share in the family's joy.
This was a pastoral visit and also a bridge between cultures, a common occurrence for Fr. Robert Foliot, SJ, pastor; me, an associate pastor; and the rest of the staff and parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Toronto, Canada's largest and most culturally diverse city.
Located in the heart of downtown, Lourdes has been in the care of the Jesuits of the Upper Canada Province and others working with them since 1969. A staff of five priests (three full time, two part time), an Irish Christian Brother, a Good Shepherd Sister, and a small army of parish employees and volunteers serve the people of God in our part of Cabbagetown (so called because of the favorite garden crop of early Irish settlers).
The church's mission statement describes our faith family: "We include in our ministry new immigrants, the poor, the elderly, the shut-ins, those who are alone, single parents, children and youth, and those who feel alienated or unwelcome." Accurate numbers are difficult to come by--the church is filled to capacity for all six Sunday masses. The parish list of 3,000 families tells only part of the story.
Right across the street from Lourdes loom the towers of the St. James Town housing project, where Siriya and her family live. Erected shortly after the Jesuits took over the parish, these six blocks of high-rise housing are home for between 15,000 and 18,000 people--numbers here are also hard to pin down. Many of the St. James Town residents, the fortunate ones, work in the service sector in downtown offices. But a recent 21-percent cut in social assistance threatens a large number of families there.
It was not always this way. In earlier years, Lourdes's neighborhood was known as Rosedale; it was one of Toronto's old-money enclaves. A recent note from Virginia Brown, an 84- year-old patient at nearby Wellesley Hospital, where we serve as chaplains, captures the sense: "Thank you for your visit! Lourdes, the `Rosedale' parish of long ago--I recall, as if it were yesterday, my sister's wedding there in 1936, including my own trŠs chic, pink-lace, maid-of-honor's dress. Girls enjoyed being very feminine in those days! I remember well the strains of the sad and naive `Oh Promise Me' sung at weddings, accompanied by the tender snifflings in the ladies' white lace hankies."
Landmarks of Toronto, a booklet from that era, calls Lourdes "the most magnificent of all the Toronto churches." Founded in 1886 by Bp. J. J. Lynch, an Irish Vincentian, the parish has undergone a series of metamorphoses over the years as it accommodated a rapidly growing city and waves of immigrants. Recent years have seen an influx of Catholics, from the Philippines and South America and elsewhere, raising their percentage in the population from around 10 to 46--something of a shock to a once staunchly "Orange" bastion of conservatism known in the earlier times as "the Belfast of Canada."
The parish is near the center of Toronto's populous gay community, and this provides us with a challenging ministry to a community often misunderstood and frequently ostracized. Among other services, a monthly healing mass for those infected with HIV, their partners, families, and caregivers draws a large and appreciative crowd. A prayer corner devoted to "Our Lady, Light in the Darkness" for AIDS victims takes its place in the sanctuary along with conventional shrines to Mary and the saints. Br. Gabe McHugh, the Irish Christian Brother on staff, dedicates most of his time to AIDS-related ministry and works closely with the nearby Casey House, a residence for those dying of illnesses brought on by AIDS.
Because of our mission statement's welcome to "those who feel alienated or unwelcome," many funerals of AIDS victims are performed at Lourdes. The dedication, commitment, and love of those living with and dying of this tragic disease, both Catholic and otherwise, continue to be an inspiration and source of grace to the larger community. Having a finger on the pulse of the community is essential. During monthly interfaith gatherings, local clergy meet with local politicians and decision makers, including the elected provincial and federal representatives who serve the area. At one lunch session, a somewhat beleaguered provincial housing minister was trying to explain recent cutbacks that were having such a devastating effect on many of our people. When he had finished, the Anglican archbishop, substituting for his pastor, put the case for the Gospel in simple but pointed words: "The poor are always with us. But, if at the end of this experiment the rich are richer and the poor are poorer, what your government is doing is wrong." Stopping the injury is sometimes more demanding than tending the wound.
Liturgies at Lourdes are attended to by a small battalion of altar servers! An extraordinary group of predominantly Filipino youngsters, often numbering over 20, fills the sanctuary at mass. The organization boasts a membership of 75 and has taken on a life of its own. Prasad arrived recently with a new friend, Paul, whose family had just moved into an apartment across the street. Paul, a fellow Tamil, joined the ranks of the 1:00 p.m. servers and found himself with a built-in extended family. Because there are not many activities available to inner-city youth, Lourdes provides a valuable service by being a place for them to gather and grow.
The parish's commitment to the community also found expression in our response to Flor, a new recipient at the church-run food bank. Having arrived two years ago from Ecuador, where she was a doctor, Flor found herself and her fatherless baby daughter caught in the welfare maze that frustrates many new Canadians. She discovered in Heather MacLennan, one of our Jesuit Volunteers, a welcoming and resourceful friend. Flor was anxious to get some winter clothing for her child, and it didn't take Heather long to discover that Patricia, who cooks evening meals at the rectory, had a friend whose baby daughter had just outgrown exactly what was needed.
That crisis averted, it was then learned that Flor could not attend the parish's English as a Second Language (ESL) classes because the accompanying day-care services had fallen victim to recent welfare cuts. Without English she could not take the medical equivalency exam; in fact, she could not really get any kind of job at all. Leave it to Heather; she found Una, a faithful and generous parishioner who taught the needed ESL classes and who was herself anxious to improve her Spanish. The double-tutorial arrangement they developed turned into a strong and lasting friendship; Una will be godparent for Flor's soon-to-be-baptized young daughter.
Siriya and her parents -- Prasad and Paul -- Flor and Una -- Heather and Patricia -- they are what Our Lady of Lourdes Parish is all about. The Hon. Arthur Kelly, in his tribute to the church on its 100th anniversary, wrote insightfully, "The genius of the parish lies in its remarkable ability to adapt to the varying needs of its diverse membership."
Fr. Brian Massie, SJ, was baptized and confirmed and served as altar boy at Our Lady of Lourdes, where now, 40 years later, he is associate pastor. He recently completed eight years in Jamaica, where, among other things, he was a chaplain to death-row inmates.