Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 20, 1999
Laporte has big shoes to fill
By GLEN ARGAN
The man named to fill two of the biggest shoes in town was less than three years old when Msgr. Bill Irwin launched Catholic Social Services in 1961.
But Father Micheal Laporte has a long history of his own with CSS.
Laporte worked for the organization for two summers in the early 1980s while he was a seminarian.
"I've remained in close contact with the agency for 18 years," Laporte told the WCR Sept. 10, the day after his appointment as executive president of Catholic Charities was announced. He officially took over the position Sept. 15.
Catholic Charities is the corporation which runs both Catholic Social Services and CSS's fundraising arm, the Sign of Hope campaign.
Four years ago, Irwin stepped down as president and chief operating officer of CSS and was replaced by Al Pierog, a long-time agency worker.
But it can hardly be said that the hardworking Father Bill retired. As head of Catholic Charities, he made sure the organization raised more money and started new programs.
The agency he launched with a staff of one and a small office 38 years ago is now Canada's largest multifunction social service agency. It has 750 staff, 1,500 volunteers and 119 programs.
Irwin himself has won an abundance of honours for his work, including an appointment last year as an officer of the Order of Canada.
Now 71, with his Parkinson's disease advancing, Irwin takes another step back.
"I'm not retiring," he told the WCR. "I suspect I'll be here at the office quite a bit for some time."
Archbishop Thomas Collins has appointed him to a new executive position on the board of Catholic Charities, to monitor the funding and fiscal management, and faith component of CSS as well as appointing and appraising the executive president.
But who would take over from Irwin as executive president?
In Irwin's mind, two qualities were essential - his replacement had to be a qualified social worker and a priest. That left only two people in Alberta eligible - himself and Laporte.
Laporte, the 41-year-old pastor of Camrose's St. Francis Xavier Parish, has been managing CSS's child and youth services program in Wetaskiwin for the past year. In 1998, he earned a master's degree in social work from Fordham University in New York.
He'll continue to serve as Camrose's pastor while working full-time at Catholic Charities.
"In some ways it's an overwhelming job," Laporte said of his new position. "But Father Bill is not going far away. I'll report to him - he does my appraisals. I'll have continued support and guidance."
Irwin is determined that the agency be Catholic in more than name. That's one reason he wanted a priest as his successor.
"A priest can open a door that a layman can't," he continued. "A priest doesn't have to build a reputation in the community; he has one already.
"Primarily, (having a priest in the position) is a guaranteed contact with the archdiocese."
Irwin admits not everyone in the agency agrees with that view: "I've had difficulty convincing some people of this."
But he has been vigorous in promoting the "Catholic" in Catholic Social Services. The agency, he said, must help clients to know God's love.
"If we don't have a faith component in the delivery of our services, we should close shop," he said bluntly.
Laporte said when he returned from New York he had no expectation of taking over Irwin's position. "It was a surprise to me and an honour to be offered the position."
Irwin looks back on his 38 years with the agency with no regrets "other than that I didn't pray enough."
Establishing the Kairos residential program for AIDS sufferers in 1989 was also difficult. "I had no support," he said, recalling that staff were frightened of the program. "Now everyone accepts it."
His main highlight was the opening of CSS's program in Manila, the Philippines, 10 years ago. "That's something I never thought we'd accomplish."
With a budget of only $30,000, it brings help to 500 to 600 families, he said.
He also spoke of "the difficulty we had with the United Way" - CSS's withdrawal from the body in 1984 when the United Way began funding Planned Parenthood, an abortion referral agency.
"It's too bad we did what we did. But we did the right thing," he said.
"The best thing is that we've now reconciled," Irwin continued. A year ago, CSS began accepting money routed to it through the United Way. And on Sept. 15, he was to say the Grace at the United Way's campaign kickoff breakfast.
"Three or four years ago, you'd never think of such a thing happening."