Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
April 30, 2001
A council that creates miracles
Fr. Newman Council brings Magic of Christmas, reaches out to handicapped
SPECIAL TO WCR
CALGARY — There's no telling what one member of the Knights of Columbus can accomplish with a little help from his council.
With two ideas designed to meet a need in the community, Bob Johnson and the members of Father Albert Newman Council 8470 have launched two city-wide, not-for-profit charitable societies and fostered more than a few miracles.
For their efforts, the council at St. Patrick's Church is the only council in Alberta to have received two international awards. The first, in 1994, was for a program called the Magic of Christmas; and the second, in 1998, was for their Handi-Boat program which takes physically- and mentally-challenged people on summer lake excursions near Calgary.
"Basically we find out where there's a need," says Grand Knight Brian Watson. "If one of the council members has a particular area of interest, he can bring a proposal to council. We don't rush into a lot of activities without doing a lot of research. Then we adopt it as a council function."
In fall of 1979, Knight Bob Johnson's wife, Nancy, entered the Fanning Centre with multiple sclerosis.
At Christmastime that year, Johnson wanted something to do with his two young girls, aged five and seven, to take their mind off their mother's absence.
On Christmas Eve, Johnson dressed up as Santa Claus, and along with his two daughters serving as elves, visited a neighbourhood family who were going through a rough time. He delivered some Christmas cheer and presents. The visit made a difference. A year later, he visited a half dozen families.
A few years later, the St. Patrick's council became involved and the program quickly grew to the point where it was incorporated as an all-volunteer, non-denominational society in 1991.
Last year, about 150 volunteers - many of them Knights and their families - used six transit buses and spent about 18 hours on Christmas Eve visiting more than 2,800 people in shelters, hospitals and nursing homes around the city. Now, a rural Magic of Christmas makes the rounds in towns southwest of Calgary.
"Our motto is to spread the love, caring and sharing associated with the most joyous time of year," says former society president Charles Russell, who is a past grand knight at St. Patrick's.
In 1997, Johnson devised another idea. This time he wanted to take people with disabilities for daytime voyages on nearby lakes - people who wouldn't normally have a chance to go fishing or cruising.
The council adopted the idea and raised $50,000 to build a special boat. About 90 per cent of St. Patrick's council became involved in its construction.
The boat, along with an emergency chase vessel, now tours Ghost Lake every day but Sunday from the beginning of June to the end of September. It carries eight people in wheelchairs, an additional 12 passengers, along with a crew of three.
The Handi-Boat Society was incorporated the same year and a few years later, the Calgary chapter of the Knights of Columbus adopted it. Grand Knight Watson is society president and about 20 to 30 Knights from St. Patrick's remain involved. Last year it took out about 650 passengers from regional nursing homes and special needs' centres.
"If you could see the look on people's faces when they out on the lake and the fun they're having, it just tears your heart out," says Russell.
Johnson died last year but his legacy lives on both within the Knights and the city-at-large.
Russell chokes up when he talks about the lives that have been touched by the two projects.
Several years ago, Russell, dressed up as Santa, and together with Brian St. Germain, past grand knight at Holy Spirit Council, made the rounds at the Foothills Hospital.
In one unit, they visited a woman in a wheelchair. The pair, together with St. Germain's wife and three children, sang Christmas carols and gave the woman a teddy bear.
As they were leaving, Santa and his elves hugged the woman. The stuffed animal dropped on the ground. St. Germain's wife picked it up and handed it back to her.
"Who's that?" the woman asked, pointing to Russell.
"Santa Claus," St. Germain's wife answered.
"I love Santa," the woman responded.
The nurse accompanying Santa on his rounds broke into tears.
"That is the first time the lady has spoken in three years," said the nurse.
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