Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 5, 2005
Church brought help for the needy
Sisters launched Catholic social services in Alberta's early days
By BILL GLEN
WCR Staff Writer
As advantaged as some people are living in Alberta, there are many who still rely on assistance from a charitable service.
We may think of a destitute person as someone who ambles along pushing a shopping cart filled with meagre pickings. It is an image that repels some, yet draws others to help.
But there is also a single mother waitressing in Fort McMurray, for example, who has no way of getting by in the booming northern city without some form of assistance. She might not fit the stereotype of someone in need, but she is a victim of the province's own success because while her wages might not be linked to oil revenue, her rent is. Without help, she and her family could fall by the wayside.
An advantage of living in Alberta is its extensive history of charity and social service, wrote John Rasmussen, author of Catholic Social Services of Edmonton: The First 25 Years. He says Alberta Catholics had established a tradition of sharing prior to the formation of the province in 1905.
Rasmussen traces charity work to the arrival of two religious orders: The Oblates of Mary Immaculate around 1855 and the Grey Nuns of Montreal in 1863. Many other orders arrived later who began caring for the needs of the sick, the poor and the elderly. This began the growth of schools, hospitals and charitable work in the province during alternating periods of prosperity and need.
The first 50 years of the province's history can be seen as a time of rapid urban and industrial expansion. But like everywhere else, Alberta was not spared from the effects of the Great Depression and drought in the 1930s.
When the railways came West around 1890 bringing waves of poor European immigrants, the population of Alberta began to explode. It grew furiously when oil was first discovered in Turner Valley southwest of Calgary in 1914 and later near Leduc in 1947. However, the new socio-economic condition had its dark side as more people had their beliefs in family and faith challenged.
Well before the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity (Good Shepherd Sisters) donated their property to the Edmonton Archdiocese to develop what is now the Catholic Pastoral Centre, the order ran a home for troubled female teens, known as Mapleridge. The order was called to the province in 1912 to help "delinquent and neglected girls" - young women who came from broken homes.
If the Depression did anything, it revealed how vulnerable any person can become. It showed there is a great and continual need for Church and lay charitable organizations. By the late 1950s, Rasmussen reports that 26 religious communities were providing services in Edmonton and area, tending to a situation that was growing in complexity.
No longer was need basically patterned after food, shelter, medicine and education. People were growing older and a transient population was rising. The Youville Home was constructed in St. Albert for the sick and elderly in 1949, while the Marian Centre was launched in downtown Edmonton in 1955, providing food and clothing.
Catholic Social Services
Catholic Social Services began in the Edmonton Archdiocese in 1961 as Catholic Charities, under the direction of Father (later Msgr.) Bill Irwin.
Archbishop John Hugh MacDonald approached Irwin knowing his interest in social justice and welfare. No one could have predicted that 40 years later CSS would grow into the largest multi-function social service agency in Canada.
Irwin began the agency with a $500 loan and a $40-a-month office. Today, CSS has a budget of $50 million and supports more than 100 programs in central and northern Alberta, serving more than 60,000 clients of all faiths.
CSS offers individual and family counselling; group care and foster care for children and youth. There are in-home family support services; home care services and settlement support services for immigrants and refugees.
CSS offers residential and outreach programs for persons with physical and/or developmental disabilities; residential and outreach programs for persons living with HIV/AIDS; referral and support services for elder adults experiencing abuse or neglect.
The first L'Arche home was opened in the Edmonton area near the end of 1972 when three mentally handicapped people were invited to live in a Sherwood Park home. It was the first group home of any kind for the mentally handicapped in Alberta. The community now has several homes in Edmonton, Sherwood Park, Calgary and Lethbridge.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, an international non-profit lay agency that reaches out to the poor providing clothing, furniture and food, established its first Alberta parish group in Calgary, in 1982. It spread across the Calgary Diocese to Medicine Hat, Lethbridge, Brooks, Okotoks, Black Diamond and Taber.
The society found its way north to Morinville (St. Paul Diocese) and later to the Edmonton Archdiocese, establishing several conferences in recent years in Edmonton, Leduc, Sherwood Park and Lloydminster. In 2003, the society was able to assist 1,222 adults who had 1,252 children in Edmonton. There is now a conference in Yellowknife (Mackenzie-Fort Smith Diocese).
In 1988, the Grey Nuns opened La Salle Residence in Edmonton, a safe environment for single expectant mothers, single mothers with young children and abused women in transition.
The shelter is one of dozens across the province.
The Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement also run a home for abused women and children - Lurana Shelter.
The Catholic Women's League was one of several groups that helped start Women In Need shelter (WIN House) for abused women and children in Edmonton in the late 1960s. WIN House is an independent organization.
In the Calgary Diocese, Elizabeth House provides a safe and caring residence for single, pregnant and parenting teens. It operates under a partnership between the diocese's Catholic Charities and the Sisters of Charity of St. Louis. Since it opened in 1996, Elizabeth House has given shelter to some 80 pregnant mothers and 64 babies.
In 2004, Catholic Charities in Calgary disbursed more than $850,000 to 43 agencies and programs in southern Alberta.
From the Big Sisters and Big Brothers Society in Rockyview to the Drumheller Society for Recovery; from The Fort Macleod Society for Kids First to the Lethbridge YWCA, Catholic Charities assisted almost 100,000 people from the services of 16,000 volunteers.
Wherever you live in Alberta, chances are the Catholic Church is making a charitable service available to help.