Msgr. Bill Irwin

WCR FILE PHOTO

Msgr. Bill Irwin

May 21, 2012
CHRIS MILLER
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Msgr. William Irwin lived downtown, in Edmonton's historic Oliver community, and cherished its natural beauty during many evening walks.

It's only appropriate that a park in the neighbourhood has been named after the founder of Catholic Social Services. He loved children, so having the park next to a school is also fitting.

Monsignor William Irwin Park, formerly known as Grandin Park, is adjacent to Grandin School, 9844-110 St.

The park has been renamed in honour of the late founder of CSS, the man fondly referred to as "Father Bill." Catholic Social Services, founded in 1961, has grown to become Canada's largest multi-function social service agency, serving over 60,000 clients of all faiths and cultures each year.

Archbishop Emeritus Joseph MacNeil (left), assisted by Christopher Leung, CEO of Catholic Social Services, and CSS vice-president Marc Barylo prepare to bless Msgr. Bill Irwin Park.

WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER

Archbishop Emeritus Joseph MacNeil (left), assisted by Christopher Leung, CEO of Catholic Social Services, and CSS vice-president Marc Barylo prepare to bless Msgr. Bill Irwin Park.

Irwin, who died in 2004, was chosen by Edmonton city council as one of the top 100 citizens of the century. He was the recipient of many national and international awards. He was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada - the country's most prestigious citizenship award.

Students and staff of Grandin School hosted a prayer service May 14 in tribute to their namesake. Afterwards, staff, clients and volunteers of Catholic Social Services participated in a dedication and blessing ritual, led by Archbishop Emeritus Joseph MacNeil.

MacNeil described his longtime friend as courageous, dynamic and an exceptional leader with the highest personal integrity.

Irwin faithfully served the Church for 50 years, and was gifted with great compassion for any person in need. His life was a model of Christian service, he said.

"Jesus is the Good Samaritan. Bill Irwin tried to follow in his footsteps, and was courageous in many different things," said MacNeil.

More than $51,000 was donated to pay for the signs, benches, trees and shrubs in the revitalized park. MacNeil said many homeless people gather in the park, and that will probably make Irwin smile in heaven.

Lorraine Brooks worked with Msgr. Bill Irwin for more than 20 years.

WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER

Lorraine Brooks worked with Msgr. Bill Irwin for more than 20 years.

"In so many ways, Jesus reached out to those who were different from himself, people who had trouble with illnesses, people who were troubled in many ways, people that no one else wanted to associate with," said MacNeil. "Well, in so many ways, that's what Bill Irwin did."

EXPECTED 100 PER CENT

Lorraine Brooks met Irwin while he was the chaplain at the jail in Fort Saskatchewan, and she was working part-time at the parish office. She later worked with him for almost 20 years at Catholic Social Services.

"He was fantastic. He expected 100 per cent from everybody, and gave 100 per cent or more all the time. He had lots of respect for other people, staff and clients alike," said Brooks.

He was a man who could think outside the box, always finding inventive solutions to the city's most pressing social needs and establishing programs that otherwise did not exist.

"He's such a humble man that he would not want all this fuss. It's wonderful though because it certainly recognizes somebody that made a big impact in the city of Edmonton and in Alberta," said Brooks.

VISIONARY

Douglas Roche was an Edmonton member of Parliament from 1972 to 1984, and a senator from 1998 to 2004. When he came to Edmonton in 1964 to serve as founding editor of the WCR, Irwin was his first friend and they remained close all through the years.

"Bill Irwin was a visionary. He had a kindness to him that reached out to people. He reached out to me, and made me feel welcome right away. I didn't know anybody in Edmonton, and Bill took me in," said Roche.

Women plant geraniums, Msgr. Irwin's favorite flower in the park that bears his name.

WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER

Women plant geraniums, Msgr. Irwin's favorite flower in the park that bears his name.

He described Irwin as having a wry sense of humour. When he visited people's homes, he had habit of straightening their pictures on the walls.

Irwin's influence on the whole city remains strong even today. His views on social work and the implementation of human rights influenced Roche. He understood the city's problems and how to apply workable solutions.

"He knew how to build for a future that would get at the problems and bring the people to Catholic Social Services. He had a long-range vision," said Roche.

Lawyer Kevin Feehan, the Sign of Hope chairman, started working with Irwin in 1985.

GOSPEL MESSAGE

"He (Irwin) was a dedicated human being who believed truly in the Gospel message of social justice and the need to look after everyone who needed a lift up, a hand up," said Feehan.

He said the park will serve as a living legacy of his memory and hopefully inspire others to adopt his way of life, a life of peace, hope and love.

Ward 8 city councillor Ben Henderson said, "I get a sense from being at Catholic Social Services and seeing their work that it is his spirit that infuses, not just the generosity of it, but the creativity of their work.

"It is way overdue to be able to commemorate what he has given to the city in this way," said Henderson.

Three red geraniums, Irwin's favourite flower, were planted during the park dedication. All guests were given blue forget-me-nots. Blue was Irwin's favourite colour, and the forget-me-nots symbolize Catholic Social Services clientele.