Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 23, 2005
50 years of hospitality
Marian Centrer sees Christ in the face of the poor
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me," Jesus once said referring to the poor and the outcast. Those words are taken seriously at the Marian Centre. In fact, feeding and clothing the poor has been the focus of the centre since its inception in the inner city half a century ago.
"This is a house of hospitality for anybody who is in need of food, clothing, friendship or a friendly face," says Chuck Sharp, one of nine members of the Madonna House Apostolate who staff the large, U-shaped building at 10528-98 St.
The centre's staff treats the needy with love and respect, referring to them affectionately as Christophers, which means Christ-bearers. "It's a privilege to serve Christ in the poor."
They serve a simple lunch and provide used clothing and household items for those in need at no charge. Most of the visitors are chronically unemployed men who live in nearby shelters or sleep on the streets.
Friendship for all
"Our first priority is to offer friendship and hospitality to all who come," Sharp said. "We ask no questions and make no judgments. Everybody is welcome."
Staff members will mark the Marian Centre's 50th anniversary in the centre's dining room with two concerts by Winnipeg singer Steve Bell on May 29.
Former Marian Centre director Michael Fagan said the centre has touched thousands of people in the past 50 years and should be proud of its contributions.
He did his share. In 1980 Fagan, in collaboration with the archdiocesan Social Justice Commission and other city agencies, launched the Edmonton Food Bank, the first food bank in Canada.
In some ways the centre's staff is like the people they serve: beggars. Everything they own has been given to them. The Marian Centre receives no government support or grants of any kind and its staff receives no salaries.
"We continue to be beggars on a day-to-day level, calling forth the support of the whole community to care for their brothers and sisters in need," reads a Marian Centre newsletter. Fortunately, people always respond. Countless people from Edmonton and the surrounding areas provide food, clothing, money and many hours of work.
Looking for socks
The centre opens everyday, except Wednesdays. Its doorbells are on from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. and it serves a hot meal from noon to 1 p.m. and then sandwiches at the door till 3 p.m. On Sundays it serves sandwiches from noon until 1 p.m.
"But people knock on our door at any hour," Sharp said, noting that one time a man broke into the building late at night giving everybody a good scare. When asked what he was doing, the man replied, "I'm looking for a pair of socks."
Sharp, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, and member of Madonna House since 1967, has been at the Marian Centre for about a year. He has served in similar centres in Combermere, Washington and Regina in the past.
The number of clients varies according to the time of the month. At the beginning of the month the centre serves around 170 hot meals per day. By the end of the month up to 290 meals are served. Lunch is usually a hot stew accompanied by bread, salad, desert and milk.
In addition to receiving food from the Food Bank, the centre receives food from some downtown banquet facilities as well as donations from individuals, families and parishes.
An army of volunteers made up of retirees, professionals and students assist the staff with the preparation and distribution of meals. Anywhere from 10 to 30 volunteers show up at the centre every day. Catholic students usually show up on Saturdays.
The Marian Centre is one of about 20 mission houses of Madonna House, a community of consecrated lay men, women and priests founded by Catherine de Hueck Doherty in Combermere, Ont. It was the second house established away from Combermere after Whitehorse, which was started in 1954.
Under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the five women and four men who staff the centre live as brothers and sisters in community. "Our primary commitment is to try to live in a community of love and allow that (love) to touch everybody who comes into our house," Sharp explained.
Prayer is the centre
Prayer is at the heart of life at the Marian Centre. Staff members realize that without prayer they would have no love to give and could not go on serving from day to day.
They pray regularly for those they serve, for their volunteers and benefactors and all the people who enter the centre's doors. Their chapel, where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, is the centre of the house.
"We are called to feed not only the physically hungry but also the spiritually hungry; to clothe not only the body but also every aspect of life with the light of the Gospel," declares centre's newsletter.
This emphasis on the spiritual goes back to the mid-1970s, when Catherine Doherty, seeing Alberta's affluence, suggested the Marian Centre become a house of prayer. It was at that time that the centre opened its poustinias, which are rooms set aside for solitude, prayer and fasting.
The Marian Centre also features a lending library with many books on the spiritual life. And staff members, with interested friends, regularly read or discuss Scripture or the spirituality of Madonna House and share liturgies.
They also spend time doing whatever is necessary to keep the house going, from repairs to maintenance to office work. Some do arts and crafts at the centre and some take classes.
Sharp, a Madonna House member since age 18, is planning to take cooking classes in the future. He probably needs them. After a lifetime of doing mechanical, carpentry and electrical work, last year he was appointed cook. "This is the first time in my 38 years in the apostolate that I have had the opportunity to do a lot of cooking," he laughed.
The Marian Centre is the brainchild of Archbishop John MacDonald, who invited the Madonna House Apostolate to open a refuge for transient men. At the time men were coming into Edmonton from all over Canada looking for employment and many found themselves without work and in need of food and clothing.
In response to the archbishop's request, Madonna House dispatched Dorothy Phillips to Edmonton in January 1955 with $200 and a mission to clothe and feed the city's transient poor.
"One of the first things Dorothy did here was to meet with the archbishop and the priests to explain to them what Madonna House would do here," related Sharp. "She received a great deal of support from parishes, the Knights of Columbus and the Catholic Women's League."
Within three months Phillips, who died in 1999, had found a suitable house to begin her mission. It was a small frame house on 95th Street.
While the house was being renovated men in need began to arrive. Before long, Phillips and her helpers were feeding stew to an average of 145 men a day. A few months after the centre opened, the city asked for the property back forcing the Marian Centre to move to its present location.
Soon it became apparent the house was too small and several additions were built over the years. In the mid-1960s a third wing was added to provide a recreation room and a drop-in centre for those on the street. "That's where we serve lunch right now," Sharp said.
In the late 1960s the centre was serving 1,500 meals a day, recalls Sharp, who first served at the Marian Centre for a few months in 1968. At the time thousands of men were heading north to work in various mines that had opened. When the mines closed in the early 1970s Edmonton became inundated with transient and unemployed men, forcing the provincial government to open several shelters.
As the government began to take more responsibility for the poor throughout the 1970s and the need on the street diminished, the Marian Centre began to cut back its services and to concentrate on the spiritual. "We stopped serving the noon meal for a while," Sharp recalled. "But as people continued to knock on our doors we started to provide sandwiches." Before long, the centre was providing hot meals again.
What's clear is that after 50 years, the services of the Marian Centre are still very much needed in Edmonton, Sharp said.