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Written by Deborah Rankin for VMO
Saturday December 26th, 2015

For Father Joseph Fugolo, the pastor of Madre dei Cristiani (MDC), a Catholic mission church in La Salle, there's really no such thing as retirement. When this septuagenarian isn't performing his duties as parish priest at MDC, he's rushing off to say Mass at L'Annunziata Parish, another mission church in Lachine where he helps out: that's when he's not heading up the outreach to Syrian refugees at the Scalabrini Centre of Montreal, in Ahuntsic, or flying off to Haiti to assist in the re-building of the island nation that was rocked by an earthquake five years ago.

But, for the former Provincial (Director) of the Congregation of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, also known as Scalabrinians - a religious order dedicated to helping immigrants and migrants - it's what he loves to do.

"I'm 75 years old, " he says, chuckling, "but I'm busier than I ever was when I was young. I'm happy to do what I am doing. There's a real community here." 

The multicultural church in the southwestern borough of Montreal, serving Italian, Latino, African, and Filipino immigrants, along with old-stock Anglophones and Francophones, is multilingual too. MDC's priests say Mass in Italian, English, French, Spanish and, one also, in English and Tagalog, the latter, an Austronesian language of the Philippines. 

Not surprisingly, the parish is a vibrant hub of social life. It puts on the ever-popular Children's Pageant at Christmas, along with the annual Halloween Bash (for kids and grown-ups) - always a big hit! A new event, "Nonna's Tea (& Continental Breakfast)" helps kids to remember to make time for Grandma, rather than simply taking her for granted. Then there are concerts, dinners for volunteers - many of them women - and the usual bake and rummage sales to help raise money to support the Church's mission. This is all with a view to "welcoming the stranger", a core Christian teaching, building up the wider community in the process. 

Lori Arseneau is the volunteer co-ordinator for the Filipino community at Madre dei Cristiani. She makes sure that everything is ready for the bilingual Mass on Sundays at 5 pm. There are several groups that rotate to make sure that the choir always has enough singers. Lori cooks the meals for the supper that takes place in the Church's basement after Mass, as well as organizing events such as the festivities that are being planned in connection with World Day for Immigrants on January 17th. 

She likes to prepare what she calls the "long table of Jesus"- a table with the food which she has cooked - in memory of the Lord's Supper. All are welcome to partake. After the priest has blessed the food and given thanks, people can sit down, eat together, and get to know each other better. It's about "fellowship", she says. "I like to bring people back to Church, it is the house of God," adding that every place of worship is, regardless of religious affiliation. 

In the northeastern corner of the island-city, the Scalabrini Centre for Refugees and Immigrants of Montreal is getting ready to receive dozens of mostly Muslim Syrian refugees whom it will help settle and integrate into their new city, province, and country. The Congregation of St. Charles Borromeo has a lay counterpart which manages the centre, with several employees and dozens of hands-on volunteers who run its shelters, provide skllls training, legal referrals, and counselling services. 

Fugolo says the Scalabrinian mission is about helping people who have lived the "drama of migration", who find themselves to be "foreigners in a foreign land". For new immigrants, "It's about maintaining their identities, (whilst) integrating into a new country. "My concern is the future," Fugolo says. "If I don't open up the Church to become 'catholic' in the universal sense - to be open to diversity - to become the Church - it will become a ghetto."

Madre dei Cristiani has two other priests, Father Jairo Alfonso Avila, Associate Pastor, who says Mass in Spanish, as well as English, and Father Marco Limodio, who says Mass in Italian. However, the parish couldn't get by without the help of Father John Walsh, a long-time friend of Fugolo's. Walsh, a well-known social activist and writer for the English-language newspaper, The Suburban, is only too happy to help out at the local mission church since he too retired after 45 years at the pulpit of St. Jean Brebeuf Church in La Salle.

Walsh says he finds the community of Madre dei Cristiani, "warm and welcoming", noting, "It has good readers and a good liturgy." He likes the adult servers who assist him on the altar when he celebrates Mass in English, French, and - yes! - even Italian. He fills in at Annunziata Parish too, saying Mass in different languages. Multilingual and well-travelled - Walsh speaks Hebrew, having lived in Jerusalem for a year, where he studied at a biblical institute - he is strongly committed to ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue and co-operation.

Fugolo says that he and Walsh are kindrid spirits. "I am very comfortable with Father John Walsh. We have the same vision of the Church. We are good friends. Our friendship is based on similar ideas." At a time when we are hearing that few are answering the call to the priesthood, Father Joseph Fugolo and Father John Walsh are two who positively radiate joy in their callings. 

But, the Church wouldn't be the Church if it weren't for the faithful. Unlike many parishes with dwindling numbers, MDC keeps packing them in at Mass on Sundays (and Saturdays). Back in the 90's, parishioners decided to demolish the old structure and build a completely new church to provide more space for MDC's growing congregation of more than 4000 families. And so, in 2000, under the guidance of its then young pastor, Father Ruggiero, a brand new church of modern design was inaugurated. (The new church was consecrated in 2005.) 

Perhaps, it is the multicultural dynamic, or perhaps it is the family-friendly focus. The parish has a special Mass at 11 am on Sundays, the "Children's Mass", designed especially for kids. Or perhaps it's the Church's larger mission to help the poor and marginal. Whatever the special ingredient is that keeps them coming in, the parish is abuzz with activities throughout the week, be it for choir practice, or catechism preparation, or planning activities for the feast day of MDC's patron saint, Padro Pio, culminating in a grand procession through the streets of La Salle. A mostly older generation of parishioners also commemorates the feast days of other saints venerated in the parish.

Young or old, newcomers, or second and third-generation immigrants, old-stock Canadians, French and English, Italians, as well as members of diverse cultural communities - together, they make it work for the common good of their local Church and the broader community. Let the naysayers say that religion is dead, the Catholic Church is on its last legs, and the force of Christian charity is spent. Without a doubt, this is one local hub of piety and perseverance where the fire and light haven't gone out. Madre dei Cristiani is living the mission of "being the Church".

 

 

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