Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 12, 2004
Irwin befriends Parkinson's
Catholic Social Services founder makes peace with degenerative disease
By BYRON PRICE
WCR Staff Writer
Chat with Msgr. Bill Irwin and no doubt he'll soon introduce you to his constant companion Mr. Parkinson.
Edmontonians automatically link Irwin with Catholic Social Services. For more than 40 years, Catholic Charities, Catholic Social Services and more recently Sign of Hope Society have been synonymous with the name Msgr. Bill Irwin.
Now at 75, Irwin faces a formidable foe. Irwin has Parkinson's disease.
Irwin believes he had Parkinson's for a long time before he knew what it was.
"I kept dropping things. I have had problems with vision in my eyes and two months ago I lost my writing ability. And more recently I lost the sense of touch in my finger tips".
Parkinson's disease is triggered when the dopamine supply to the brain diminishes. It affects the person's musculature, memory, speech and gait.
And so it has been with Irwin.
"Parkinson's is a relentless disease that touches every part of my existence. The prognosis is negative until death.
"I find myself more on God's door- step these days. I guess we are all on God's doorstep but we realize it more when we are in pain or trouble."
It also gives him cause to reflect back on his life.
Irwin was ordained a Catholic priest June 6, 1954. In 1961, Irwin and a small group of volunteers banded together to begin a counselling service.
"These were people who also saw the need for a counselling service in the Edmonton community. We began this endeavour which grew into Catholic Social Services with a loan of $5,000 from my mother."
Tears stream down Irwin's face as he explains: "One of the side effects of Parkinson's is that one does not have complete control of one's emotions. My brain controls the central nervous system. When my brain fails me and different nerves do not work, ordinary aspects of life, like swallowing, are affected. This relates to voice problems and is really quite disconcerting."
He slips back into the time when life was better.
"I am pleasantly surprised that C.S.S. has grown as much as it has with over 1,100 employees, office buildings, 110 programs, a $50 million budget, and serving so many communities in northern Alberta and reaching over 60,000 people I guess you could say I feel proud.
He also adds, "If it was not for the quality boards, staff and volunteers I have had the privilege to work with over the years, C.S.S. would not have been as effective as it is."
At 75 years of age, Irwin has a rigorous schedule. He has appointments booked months ahead and each day is full.
"I rise at 6 a.m. daily. It takes me two and half hours to do my toiletries and get dressed. Just buttoning a shirt can be a horrendous task. I then say my breviary, as I have done since my ordination in 1954. I go to Rosary Hall at 8:30 a.m. where I celebrate the Eucharist, then off to my office at CSS.
"I believe that even with my constant companion, Mr. Parkinson, I am well informed by the managers of CSS about what is going on. I go to meetings and listen and lend my advice when appropriate and hopefully support management in their running of C.S.S. and Catholic Charities."
Some times Irwin needs a walker and always carries a cane,
"I stay at the office till 3:30 p.m. each day. Then home to supper and in bed by 9:30 p.m."
Surgery is an option. "I get tired shortly after I take my pills and have to rest. With Parkinson's, there are many things that happen to your body. For example, you can have surgery or take pills to stop an involuntary tremor in your leg. I am not in favour of surgery for me. Where do you stop? Parkinson's attacks all aspects of the body and one pill or one surgery does not cure all.
"I am not afraid of death; I welcome it. God is a merciful God. Does this mean I have given up on God and life?"
A Parkinson pause
Irwin pauses. "My 'friend' Mr. Parkinson is back. What were we talking about?"
I remind him we were talking about death.
"Oh yes. I have not given up on life or the joy of life."
Mr. Parkinson quiets Irwin's voice.
He takes a piece of paper and draws a rough sketch of a new type of senior residence that is on the drawing board at CSS.
"I am as excited about this project as about projects we did over 30 years ago. I think this senior complex will be the only one of its design in Western Canada and maybe all of Canada.
He pauses. "If I have a legacy it would be that we never lose sight of our spirituality at CSS and that spiritual life would continue and grow, because that is the business we are in."
But he is not saying goodbye just yet.
"I do have joy in my life these days. I have tremendous support from my fellow priests. My family, relatives and friends have gone the extra mile. My relationship with God is good. C.S.S. is doing well.
"Of course, a drink of Scotch before supper at night tops it off."