Food, fun and faith in Toronto
It was a throwback to the school bazaars of their childhood for Sarah and Rebecca Ireland, both students at the University of Toronto. The sisters just moved to the city’s Annex neighborhood served by St. Peter’s Church, and got their first taste of the parish’s annual Fall Fair. Held Oct. 13-14, the fair featured raffle items that included tickets to see Bob Dylan and Neil Young, toys and other new items for sale as well as rooms full of flea market treasures.
“We are from a more rural area, so this is like something we would have at home,” said Rebecca. “Walking down the street, you forget there is such community, but you see it here – just seeing the people talking to one another.”
And visitors certainly can’t escape the fair without eating something.
“The food was amazing,” said Sarah, after lunching on some of the Italian, Filipino and Portuguese delights at the fair. “You can tell that it was homemade and authentic.”
The Fall Fair is one of the big events of the year at St. Peter’s, explained Father James Haley, CSP, pastor of the 1,000-family parish. And the Ireland sisters are exactly the young adult demographic Father Haley is hoping to attract.
Father Thomas Gibbons, CSP (right), greets members of the congregation before the 6 p.m. Sunday evening Mass Oct. 13.
The closest parish to the university (except for the school’s Newman Center), St. Peter’s has increased and adapted its marketing efforts, added a Sunday evening Mass, revamped the parish Web site and added additional cantors and musicians to the music ministry in order to become a beacon of faith to young adults. Theology on Tap, adult religious education opportunities and the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program are also attractive to the influx of students and young families that are changing the face of the Annex.
“There is such great potential here,” Father Haley said. “It is going to take a while, but these efforts are already beginning to bear fruit. We’ve got a good start.”
The Sunday evening Mass – now almost exclusively celebrated by 40-year-old Associate Pastor Father Thomas Gibbons, CSP – was added to the parish calendar in the spring. At first a handful of folks were showing up; now a recent Sunday evening boasted a group of 100.
Like many parishes, the challenge at St. Peter is to have the Catholic faith and Catholic Church be relevant, whether it is to university students like the Ireland sisters or the veteran volunteers manning the tables at the Fall Fair.
And St. Peter’s efforts at making faith relevant can be seen in the parish’s many ministries.
The Winter Welcome Table provides a hot meal each Monday evening from November through March for the homeless or those who live alone. A joint ministry with the Atonement Fathers and Sisters of Zion at nearby St. Joan of Arc Parish, the weekly dinner can see up to 100 guests. Different groups in the parishes take turns donating the food and volunteering to cook what usually is a three-course meal that is served to each guest.
“It is an expression of faith that attracts young people who like to volunteer,” said Father Haley. “It is something we are very proud of.”
And then there is the very active St. Vincent de Paul Society and extraordinary eucharistic ministers who take Communion to the homebound and the four nursing homes that are visited monthly by St. Peter priests to celebrate Mass.
This is all in addition to the offerings of the Paulist Ministry Centre, which boasts courses titled, “Saints as Life Coaches” and “The Catholic Faith: A Short Course for Adults” as well as a Christian meditation group.
There has also been a “tremendous response” to the regional counseling program housed at the Ministry Centre to which people are referred for “good, Christ-centered counseling,” according to Father Haley.
“We respect the various culture and spiritual traditions, but everyone knows they belong to one parish,” Father Haley said.
To add to the sense of parish unity, Masses that were once celebrated in various languages are now celebrated in English. This meant that the different ethnic groups previously may not have mingled as much.
“Everyone comes together to worship and for events,” Father Haley said.
Events such as the Fall Fair, where various accents and languages can be heard amongst the friendly chatter over Filipino spring rolls and eggplant lasagna, and people of different ethnicities smile and embrace friends old and new.
Past and future
The year 2013 will be epic in Toronto, as will mark 100 years of Paulist in Canada. (Stay tuned to Paulist.org for celebration details!)
Archbishop Neil McNeil, the fifth Archbishop of Toronto, invited the Paulists to direct the Newman Hall at the University of Toronto (1913-36). The Paulists were asked to take over the pastoral ministry of St. Peter's in 1914.
The Paulist community has attracted Canadians to its ranks through the years, including Father Haley himself, a native of Nova Scotia, and one of the current Paulist seminarians, Stuart Wilson Smith, CSP, who hails from New Brunswick.
As for the next century of Paulist ministry in Canada, Father Haley sees nothing but potential and growth.
“We’ve got a lot going on and a lot to offer,” he said.