Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 6, 2004
Msgr. Bill Irwin - - he walked the talk
CSS founder was dedicated to those in need
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Back in the early 1960s, there was little help for the poor and the troubled. Many people would simply fall through the cracks with needy children suffering the most.
Father Bill Irwin, then a young and determined priest, knew he couldn't stand by and decided to do something to improve their lot.
So, in 1961, with a budget of $5,000 and charged up by his favourite Bible verse-"Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me"- he founded, with a staff of one, Edmonton Catholic Social Services.
Over the years, the agency grew and expanded beyond the priest's wildest expectations and today it is Canada's largest multifunction social service provider. With a staff of 1,200 and a budget of more than $50 million, last year the agency helped more than 55,000 street kids, teen prostitutes, drug addicts, people with AIDS, orphans and immigrants in central Alberta.
Irwin, who died Aug. 29 at the age of 76 from complications related to Parkinson's disease, will be remembered as a compassionate, driven and principled priest who tried his best to put into practice the teaching of Jesus.
"Msgr. Irwin dedicated his whole life to helping those most in need," says Archbishop Thomas Collins.
"He took very seriously the words of the Gospel and put them into practice in a very fruitful way in our area with the creation of Catholic Social Services and Catholic Charities. In the Church we have always looked to him as a model priest who brought the Gospel to life."
Christopher Leung, who replaced Irwin as chief executive officer of Catholic Social Services and Catholic Charities, said Irwin's main legacy is his role modeling.
"He was not just a talker. He walked the talk. He rolled up his sleeves and did something for the needy and the disenfranchised. His legacy will continue. We are determined to continue his mission and vision."
Said Marc Barylo, CSS spokesperson, a friend of Irwin for 36 years and a CSS employee for 21: "Father Irwin left a legacy of love, selfless service and an inspirational presence that will continue to live on in the hearts of the staff and volunteers of the agency. To me, he was like a father."
Father Mike McCaffery, Irwin's friend for the past 50 years, said he would remember the monsignor as a model priest. It was Irwin who lured him into the priesthood when he didn't know what to do with his life and who was a model for him over the years.
"He was a classy guy. He did everything with class," McCaffery said. "He was a real organizational man and a very astute politician who knew how to use the system. He knew how to get government support to get Catholic Social Services where it is now."
Born in Peterborough, Ont., Irwin moved to Edmonton as a child. He attended Grandin School and then St. Joseph's High School. He had a rich prayer life - a credit to his loving mother. "My mother would take my brother and sister and myself around her knees and she would require us each day to say the rosary," he said in 1997. "It was a good training for us and certainly the beginnings of prayer life for me."
After becoming an altar server in Grade 3, the idea of the priesthood came to Irwin but it dissipated in Grade 7 when he discovered girls. "That's not a reflection on the girls, that's a reflection on me," he joked.
In high school, he was involved in various sports, was editor of the school newspaper, had a steady girlfriend and was active in the dance club.
When he graduated from high school, he had to choose between university and the seminary. Filled with doubts, he made a private deal with the Lord. He would enter the seminary and prove to himself that he didn't belong there and would leave by Christmas. He ended up staying for two years, and then left.
Archbishop John Hugh MacDonald phoned him, suggesting they talk about his return to the seminary. Irwin told the prelate he couldn't make up his mind and the archbishop replied, "I will make it up for you. You should return to the seminary now."
He did and was ordained in 1954, celebrating his first Mass at an orphanage. In 1959, when he represented the Archdiocese of Edmonton on the Family Service Bureau, he became conscious of the need to help poor children and families.
He did graduate studies in social work at New York's Fordham University and returned to Edmonton in 1961 to open Catholic Social Services. The history of the agency reveals the priest's resolve. He dreamed of managing a social service agency with a budget of $1 million but he knew he had to start modestly.
Incessant and visionary, he once took out a personal loan for $40,000 to finance programs, without telling the board where he got the money. When the agency began to grow he was accused of building an empire, something he always denied. "We are simply trying to meet the needs of the community," he once told the WCR.
"He was never interested in building empires," corroborated Leung. "He was only interested in helping the needy."
Archbishop Joseph MacNeil was impressed with Irwin when they first met. "He was a wonderful human being and a wonderful priest," he said. "He respected everyone he met and most people would call him their friend."
Irwin also pointed the way. "He helped us understand that to be a Christian in our world we must reach out beyond the Church," MacNeil said. "He established Catholic Social Services to put into practice the love and compassion of Jesus Christ. He helped make all of us signs of hope."
Collins often turned to Irwin for advice and was never disappointed. "I was always most appreciative of his wise, thoughtful advice," he said, adding he admired the priest for his commitment and dedication to the Church and society. "He was a faithful steward of the gifts that God gave to him, especially the gift of leadership."
Among his greatest triumphs, Irwin plucked CSS out of the United Way in 1984, rather than share funding with Planned Parenthood, an abortion referral agency. Many wondered how the agency would raise the $362,000 that the United Way provided through its annual fundraising drive but Irwin wasn't concerned. He knew God would provide.
"God is good," he would say. "Praise the Lord." As he predicted, Catholic Social Services has always raised more money on its own in every Sign of Hope Campaign since 1984. Last year it raised more than $1.7 million.
In 1969 then-Archbishop Anthony Jordan assigned Irwin to full-time parish work. Frustrated, Irwin resigned and went to work for a Vancouver charity. He returned to CSS when Jordan retired a few years later.
Kay Feehan, a former social work instructor at Grant MacEwan College and a good friend and collaborator of Irwin and a CSS volunteer, described Irwin as a competent leader and a compassionate and caring man who would do big as well as little things for those in need.
Sometimes he would visit people who were sick or would go shopping for shut-ins who could not get out of bed. "I'll certainly remember him for his compassion," she said. "He really was a unique person."
Well-known and well liked, Irwin has received more awards than most people can remember. Among them, he received Canada's highest civilian honour, the Order of Canada in 1989. Two years later Pope John Paul appointed him an honorary prelate with the title of monsignor. In 1998, he was named an officer of the Order of Canada. In May, the city chose him as one of the 100 most important Edmontonians of the last century.
A vigil will be held at St. Joseph's Basilica at 2 p.m. Sept. 5. The funeral will be held there at 10 a.m. Sept. 6.
Letter to the Editor - 09/13/04