Holy Spirit Province Saint-Esprit
Franciscans of Canada - Franciscains du Canada
Ordo Fratrum Minorum
Some people know. Some are doubtful. Some don’t want to see it. Yet poverty, homelessness, precarious employment and food insecurity are very much with us here in Canada. The pandemic has only exacerbated this trend. Across the country, youth, families, workers and seniors are in survival mode. It’s a devastating fact: the pandemic brings with it more and more psychological distress for people.
Like many community organizations, parishes and religious communities, the Franciscans of Canada have adapted to the specific circumstances of this health crisis. In their humility, the Franciscans know how to act discreetly. They offer a reassuring presence to those who have nothing and welcome those who find that there is “no room in the inn.” The Franciscans have a deep commitment to the poor, to those left behind. And so we find Franciscans where few want to go, where a final line of defence is needed.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the joint English-French St. Francis/St-Roch parish in Montreal, Quebec, gave out bread to people in need, to migrants and refugees. The parish, which is run by the Franciscans, is now preparing Christmas baskets that will support the many low-income families in the multi-ethnic Parc-Extension neighbourhood, where the parish is located. Father Regi Mathew, OFM, explains that the baskets will be filled with food, of course, but also with warm clothing, personal hygiene products and a few treats.
Following predictions of increased demand at existing food banks, the Franciscan parish St. Joseph the Worker in Richmond, British Columbia, offered a temporary solution from March to August to support the growing needs of the residents of this suburb. This service is now closed, but the parish wants to ensure that emergency assistance is available in case of need. Together with the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, the parish is helping to prepare Christmas baskets. According to Joseph Glaab, OFM, the demand for assistance this year will greatly exceed that of last year.
Recently, Brother Jacques Cornet, OFM, of Victoria, British Columbia, was scrambling to find replacements for the team of volunteers who, before the pandemic, served meals to nearly 300 people in a soup kitchen near the cathedral. In what is a difficult time for everyone, keeping or finding volunteers is a daunting task. Despite the precautions in place, many people hesitate to take the risk. The needs are great in British Columbia’s capital city. There are more and more homeless people living there. Obviously, health protocols mean no more serving meals at tables, as was done before. Brother Jacques, who has a close-up view of life on the streets, explains that the new approach to service leaves very little room for human contact. “Now, volunteers fill bags with a sandwich, a container of soup, an egg, a dessert and a piece of fruit. There is also a cup of coffee. A security guard lets in only two people at a time. As soon as they have their bag, they have to go back outside. They can’t even use the washroom. But that’s the way it is.”
At the fraternity in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, the three postulants of Holy Spirit Province have been serving the poor since September. As part of their postulancy, they spend ten hours a week volunteering. David Noël, Hawkins Choi and Aldin Canobas give a helping hand at the charity Les artisans de la paix, which is well known in the region. When they arrive at work on Tuesday, some hands-on tasks await the three young men. These mainly involve helping the kitchen team prepare meals. They prepare the meat and wash and chop fruits and vegetables, which are then cooked for low-income families in the area. Then they fill containers and package it all up. Meal preparation means dirty dishes. That is why washing, drying and putting away dishes and utensils is also part of their duties. As is washing work surfaces and floors. This way, the kitchen is ready to be used again. The next day, these Franciscan postulants prepare the 140 boxes of food based on the needs of the families for whom they are intended. The following day is the day for refrigerated or frozen items, such as milk products and meat, as well as distribution. When they help distribute the food, the three postulants face a significant language barrier, as these young anglophones are still learning French. However, this barrier is not insurmountable. As David Noël says candidly: “Suffice it to say that love transcends language.”
At St. Francis/St-Roch parish in Montreal, a group of parishioners is working with the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary on their Sharing the Christmas Joy with Inuit initiative. The work involves collecting the necessary items and preparing gift boxes to be sent to people in Nunavut. These packages contain non-perishable food, sweet treats, toys and Christmas cards. A Christmas card–sending activity is also taking place in this parish, where caring is much more than a buzzword.
At the other end of the country, a similar initiative took place at St. Joseph the Worker parish. This time, it was the employees and friars who decided to make a courtesy call to the 2,700 families who are registered at the parish – all within a 2-month period (April and May). Ensuring the safety of each and every person is essential for this visibly close-knit community.
At the fraternity in Lachute, Quebec, Pierre Brunette, OFM, paints a realistic portrait of poverty in the Argenteuil region. Along with poverty, other social problems are very much present: dropping out of school, crime, addiction. “It’s true that the isolation caused by social distancing guidelines and the stopping of various services have increased the level of distress for some people.”
Father Brunette does everything he can to support the poor of his region in their desire to break out of the cycle of poverty. Although one-time assistance is often a necessity, resources to help people climb out of poverty are also important, he believes. “Marc Alarie, OFM, and I are members of Café Partage, an organization whose goal is to offer an alternative to people living with food insecurity by having them participate financially in their purchasing power: healthy food baskets, a mobile grocery store, frozen meat at affordable prices, etc. This service is offered so they can avoid having their one and only option be relying on charity, by ensuring that people get involved and take part in buying their food.” He notes that unfortunately, the pandemic has reduced these types of services.
In Cochrane, Alberta, the Franciscans run a retreat centre where retreats are offered all year long. But 2020 has been very different in many respects. What hasn’t changed is the value of inclusion conveyed by the centre’s Franciscans. Kevin Lynch, OFM, insists on this: “All are welcome in the name of Christ.” For him, a person’s ability to pay for room and board should in no way influence whether they can take part in a session. Faithful to their tradition of hospitality, sometimes the Franciscans of Cochrane take in people in need. “On two other occasions we have put up people who had nowhere to sleep for a night.”
Michel Boyer, OFM, guardian at the Trois-Rivières fraternity in Quebec, finds many visible signs that “people are experiencing more and more anxiety” in the face of the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic. People need to talk and above all to feel heard. That’s why “the gatehouse will remain open for those who want to talk, or for emergencies.” That is the case here, at the convent in Trois-Rivières, just as it is the case in fraternities across Canada.
The Franciscans are there, so no one is left behind.
Like a final line of defence.