Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 21, 2004
He marched to a different drummer
CSS founder Msgr. William Irwin honoured at his golden jubilee
By BILL GLEN
WCR Staff Writer
His customarily wry smile accompanied the roar while his hands gracefully left his cane, motioning hundreds of family, friends, priests and elected officials raising the roof on St. Joseph Basilica June 11 to cease their hearty standing ovation.
Msgr. William Irwin, everybody's Father Bill, founder of Catholic Social Services and director of millions of dollars CSS continues to generate helping the disadvantaged in the world, was denied.
They came to celebrate Father Bill's jubilee anniversary, and celebrate they did with Mass and whimsical salutations.
Flanked by 22 priests who surrounded Irwin, Archbishop emeritus Joseph MacNeil in his homily told the congregation that something Irwin can truthfully be called is a friend and confidant to all.
Father Bill has no prejudices or political preferences. He loves everyone equally, MacNeil said.
"Early in his life, Bill was well in possession to make his first million dollars. One can only imagine what successes he might have enjoyed in politics, business and academia. Could he have been our premier? Our prime minister? Why not?" he said.
But Irwin listened to a different drummer. He heard Jesus Christ call him to the priesthood. And Christ is a hard act to follow, MacNeil said, because he gave his life for others reaching out to everyone with respect, kindness and compassion.
"Bill Irwin integrated Jesus' teaching into his own life, accepting Jesus as his friend and mentor. Soon after his ordination, his organizational skills became evident. His concern for the poor and the sick, and victims of injustice and violence, began to occupy much of his time. There was no end to the range of his outward reach," he said.
"Eventually, with the encouragement of then Archbishop John MacDonald, Catholic Social Services was born."
Over more than 40 years, CSS, Catholic Charities and more recently, the Sign of Hope Society have grown out of a meagre $5,000 loan Irwin secured from his mother.
Today, with an annual budget near $50 million, CSS provides professional service to people of all faiths and cultures through more than 100 programs. The largest agency of its kind in Canada, CSS has more than 1,200 staff and 1,800 volunteers who will serve some 60,000 Albertans this year.
Father Bill suffers from Parkinson's disease. He uses a cane to help him walk, but he stood tall between MacNeil and Father Mike McCaffery to celebrate Mass.
MacNeil said it is clear that God had plans for Irwin. All of the graces given to him were bestowed upon him not just for his personal benefit, but to continue the healing ministry of Jesus.
"What an incredible organization he has established with CSS. There is nothing like it anywhere in the world. His leadership and service have been recognized by the pope, the queen, the prime minister and the premier. What a legacy he gives us."
Allan Wachowich, chief justice of the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta, has long been a friend of Irwin.
"I knew Father Bill well before his ordination in 1954. I used to go to Grandin School at the corner of 111th Street and 100th Avenue. Father Bill used to sit at a third-floor window and wave as we walked by," Wachowich said.
"I remember his ordination very well. I was in Grade 9 and one of his tasks was to try to convince young people to join the priesthood.
"He was successful in that he brought in Father McCaffery.
"I remember going to Confession and I was told to say 25 Our Fathers and 50 Hail Marys, but with Father Bill, it was five and five. I really appreciated that," Wachowich said to a roar of laughter.
"I always thought the role of a priest was to say Mass and to know the sacraments. But Father Bill knew what mercy was, and he worked to get people involved in the Church, such as myself.
"I saw a new Church because of him, a Church that must feed the hungry, bring drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and the imprisoned, bury the dead.
"He has done all of this. He has changed the Church for so many of us.
"I got involved in justice and Father Bill understood justice as well as anybody. He understood justice with empathy," Wachowich said.
Father Mike remembers
McCaffery spoke on behalf of the archdiocese. After graduating from St. Joseph High School, he was recruited into the priesthood by Irwin.
"As Justice Wachowich said, 50 years ago Father Bill inspired us with his youthful enthusiasm and zeal. We asked him then about celibacy.
"He told us there were advantages and disadvantages, and for 50 years I have been trying to figure out what the advantages are," McCaffery said.
"Father Bill has touched all of us in the key moments in our lives - our happiest and our most horrible. He has fed us with the Bread of Life and healed us with absolution."
McCaffery said he is fascinated by Irwin's efficient use of time and his hospitality, especially to fellow priests.
"He has always had great concern for priests who were struggling and hurting. He has been referred to as a priest's priest," he said.