Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 6, 1999
An ear for people's troubles
Whyte Avenue's Padre Tom expands his listening ministry
By ANH HOANG
WCR Staff Writer
For $2.94 at Block 1912, you can get a steaming hot mochaccino with thick slivers of chocolate and an hour-long rap session with Padre Tom.
The Whyte Avenue coffee house has been home to specialty coffees, icing sugar coated pastries and, for the past three years, Oblate Father Tom Bilodeau's ministry.
Every Monday morning from 10 till noon, Bilodeau, 72, sets up his sign at the front doors of Block 1912 inviting people in for coffee and a chat.
And the chat can be about "anything under the sun," said the spiritual padre, which was the name given to the chaplain on the TV show MASH. He thought referring to himself as Father Tom was "too fatherly" and the religious connotation would turn people away.
"People are very open, they will talk about anything - any of their problems. I wanted to be someone they could come in and talk to."
He's not a professional counsellor or psychologist and has never claimed to be, but Bilodeau has a couple hours to spare each week and is willing to listen to anyone who is willing to talk.
"People talk about everything," he said. "They talk about their family, they talk about their business, about their spiritual problems. They just need someone to talk to about it."
Bilodeau recalls the first year he started the ministry, a man came in and started talking to him non-stop for an hour, never giving Bilodeau a chance to comment or ask questions.
"Then he stood up and said 'Today I didn't have to take my pill.' Then he left. I saw him once after that. I guess he just needed someone to listen."
A lot of his visitors, who range from 40 to 65 years old and come from various social backgrounds, also come seeking spiritual growth.
"I'm surprised how many people come for that," he said. "I guess they need someone to be like a sounding board."
The idea for the coffee house ministry was inspired by a trip to France four years ago where Bilodeau met some local street people, whom he discovered yearned for spiritual enlightenment.
"But they didn't go to the churches, they wanted the Church to come to them."
Bilodeau also heard about the successes of Christian restaurants in Montreal and thus began the idea of Padre Tom.
"I wanted to be closer to people," he said. "The bottom line in all our lives is relationships. You look at minerals, human, everything has a relationship with each other."
He wanted to build on such relationships with the people in Edmonton. When he returned from France, he proposed the idea to his superiors and was given the thumbs up to set up a small office on Whyte Ave.
"I thought it was better to have it in a public place where there was a lot of people around. Here you can talk and still have some privacy, but it's still public."
So he approached Daya Naidoo, owner of Block 1912, who immediately said "yes" to the idea.
"It's a good thing for everyone. He's a wonderful man, I don't think there is a better person in the world than him," Naidoo said.
Bilodeau's presence hasn't overwhelmingly boosted coffee sales, but having "such a happy person in here is great for everyone. He's so nice to everyone."
Bilodeau will now take his listening ear to 95th and 96th streets in the inner city.
"Generally, people here (on Whyte Avenue) have the means to grow as human beings. They have the education, they have the money. They just need a little push or some help along the way. I wanted to work with the people who don't have these means."
Beginning this month, Bilodeau and a Lutheran minister will visit with Boyle-MacCauley residents in their neighbourhood restaurants and hang-outs, and on street corners.
Bilodeau, a native of Edmonton, spent seven years studying in Rome and several years at Notre Dame. He began teaching at Faculté de St. Jean in 1958 and retired from his post there five years ago. He also assists with pastoral duties at Ste. Anne's Parish.
Bilodeau gives everyone who visits him at Block 1912 a maximum of one hour. After that, he often advises them to come back if they want to continue the talk. Not everyone needs an hour, but Bilodeau says after an hour of listening to one problem it can wear him down.
"When you're listening to someone, you have to be there with your mind, but also with your heart. If you sit and listen for too long, your emotional compassion starts to die down."
Bilodeau hasn't tired of the weekly sad stories. He's not overwhelmed with everyone else's problems. The bad news that people bring to their talks with Bilodeau has not doused his zeal.
"I take it very seriously, the Scriptures - that we're all a word of God," he said. "When I sit and I start knowing you and hearing you, I'm listening to God. I'm listening to the words of God. This is an aspect of what God is saying - he's saying it through people.
"Everybody who comes in here, there's something positive about them. There's hope. Just the fact that they take that first step and come in here, it shows there's hope.