‘Its History Is Steeped With Stories Of Camaraderie And Cooperation’

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Helen Clarke with a photo taken outside St. Augustine church following her wedding ceremony. (Photo by Joe Barkovich)

A former parishioner’s fond remembrance of St. Augustine Catholic Church, where a closing Mass is being celebrated this morning, January 1.

By Helen Kendra Clarke, Special to the blog

The news of the closing of St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church at the end of 2016 was certain to bring a swell of mixed emotions.  For over 60 years, this modest little church served as a hub for Catholic worship for countless families in a small section of suburban Welland, known as “Welland South”.

My family was greatly influenced by this church. It was built a few doors down from the bungalow that my Dad was building at the same time, at the corner of St. George St. and St. Augustine Avenue. Because of its proximity to us, and because we were Catholic, it was natural that our whole family would become immersed in the life of this parish.

In the beginning, it was assumed that Masses would be held temporarily in the basement of the church until monies could be raised to build the upper level. Fundraisers such as bingos were held there weekly. Sliding doors hid the altar during these times. I recall helping with the setup or cleanup. It took a lot of cooperation from the parish to not only run these events, but to ensure that the space was properly readied to be a place of worship for the following Sunday. The fact that we had no pews yet, folding chairs made this transformation easier. Getting rid of the lingering cigarette smells was a bigger challenge!

Unfortunately, it was soon determined that the foundation could not safely hold the construction of an upper level.  Until another structure could be built elsewhere, the parish resigned itself to maintaining a ‘basement church’, which has remained up to the present day. Over the years, parishioners have taken pride in furnishing the space, creating a place of comfort and beauty, befitting a House of God. The artifacts that have accumulated over time are significant to the congregation whose devotion to the church has been long-standing.

Its history is steeped with stories of the camaraderie and cooperation developed as people worked together to make St. Augustine’s a viable, faith-filled community.

In our family, everyone became involved in lay activities: My Mother looked after the linens, the altar, the flowers for almost 30 years; my Father was an usher for many years and helped with maintenance of the church property; my sister and I were choir members in addition to assisting our Mom with her church work; my brother was an altar server. Our parents expected us to participate in all church functions, including attending morning Mass, especially since we lived only steps away. We often became responsible for opening the doors or locking up after services… a task that (thankfully) dwindled for us kids when we entered high school but one that my parents continued.

One of my earliest recollections at the church is Catechism classes taught by Sister Angeline for those of us Catholic children who went to public schools. She was our first introduction to “Nuns” and we were all in awe of her!  It was a few years later that St. Augustine School was built (behind our house). It started off with Grades 6-8. Sister Colomana was a teaching Principal at this new school from which I graduated after Grade 8.  Another early recollection is the training for Brownies and Girl Guides, which was held in the church. Several women of the parish volunteered to be leaders. I remember Mrs. Mary Boc patiently teaching us how to sew on our first buttons!

Our first pastor was Fr. Murray. The first rectory was an old two-storey house further down St. George St. going west, I believe at the corner of Kilgour Avenue. My mother befriended the housekeeper, Mrs. Alice Briffoz, who was a widow from England. My sister and I were recruited to help her with preparations and cleanup when dinner parties were planned at the rectory. We felt privileged to do this, plus as a bonus we usually were given desserts to bring home afterward!

When the new rectory was built just behind our house, the pastors were appreciative of the generosity of people like my folks. Many neighbours had large gardens which offered the priests a regular source of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as copious samples of home-cooked meals. I recall priests taking advantage of my Dad’s invitation to help themselves to the raspberries which bordered the edge of our garden and the driveway of the rectory.

In the 1950s and 60s the parish community was booming. The parishioners were a mixed bag of ethnic origins, many being recent immigrants to the country like my Slovak parents, and also included Italian, Croatian, Polish, Ukrainian, Dutch, French, to name a few.  Everyone worked together on many fundraisers, the biggest one being a carnival which offered rides for the kids, bingo, competitive games, refreshments, and a pig roast. It was a signature event in Welland South.

The newly-formed Catholic Women’s League held Bazaars, Rummage Sales, Spring Teas, and Poinsettia Teas; the men formed a Holy Name Society and organized parish picnics at the park and baseball games. Because my parents were also a part of these two groups, we as children got to know the majority of active parishioners. We were like a big family. People who influenced my life in the parish had last names like Martin, Vatrt, Boc, Gono, Chinadi, Godlewski, Couture, Stadnyk, Slevar, Kaas, Caissy, Simpson, Rohaly, Brouweiller, Buccitelli, Marchionda … and many others, all from a wide range of ethnicities. That was Welland South!

In the early 50s, I received the Sacrament of Confirmation at St. Augustine’s. At the time, we were a part of the Archdiocese of Toronto since the Diocese of St. Catharines was not in existence yet. I recall Fr. Noonan taking a few of us Confirmands up to Toronto to meet Archbishop McGuigan. We received a gift from him, a signed framed photo!  We were all so impressed at the time, but later, not so much!  A Hollywood star he was not! … though it is still in my possession today!

When my sister and I were in our teens, we sang in the women’s choir. Margaret Shepherd and Gerald Kirk were organists whom I recall. For a few years, our director was Basil Crabtree, a former seminarian. He taught us the rather difficult hymns of Gregorian Chant. We became so proficient at it that we were invited to sing at other churches, including St. John Bosco in Port Colborne… which ironically would become my parish church many years later.

I remember Midnight Masses at St. Augustine’s when the church was packed, with standing room only. A few times, some drunken teens would show up and were given a friendly boot out the door by the ushers!  Sometimes extra rows of chairs had to be added at the rear of the church to accommodate the overflow. At those times there was barely enough room for the choir to stand so those sitting in the back row really got an earful and occasionally an inadvertent poke in the head by the choir director!

My brother was an altar server for many years. In his early teens he was the crucifer, carrying the cross not only for the Mass, but for religious processions. In the earlier years, these went outside and circled the block for special occasions like Easter Vigil or the Crowning of Mary. I remember that a few of my friends and I proudly participated in one of these processions, wearing our communion dresses and veils.

My sister was one of the first to be married in the church in 1962. Her husband would later become an acting principal at St. Augustine School. Six years later, I married Bill Clarke, of Port Colborne. I recall some of my friends asking why I would get married in an “unfinished” church, as they put it. Several suggested going over to St. Mary’s or St. Kevin’s to be married. I remember being surprised by this since this was my church, maybe not as glamorous as others, but still mine. Besides, after the service, our wedding party walked UP the stairs into the light of day! To me this seemed somewhat symbolic and glorious!

The celebrant for our marriage was Fr. Charles Petranovic. He was from Croatia and struggled initially with his English. When he learned that my fiancé was a high school English teacher, he recruited Bill to help him re-write his homilies!  We found it amusing to hear their collaborative words spoken on Sundays by our pastor.

The first parish council was also formed in the late 60s after Fr. Petranovic arrived. My husband-to-be was asked to participate with prominent parishioners like Mrs. Simpson, Ferd Slevar, Mrs. Metoff, and Wally Wakunick.

In 1972, my husband and I moved to Port Colborne where we joined St. John Bosco Parish and raised our two children. However we continued to be drawn back to St. Augustine’s on many occasions since my parents were still active there.

At Christmas, my Dad would dress up as Santa Claus for the school children as well as for the Women’s League Christmas Party.  My mother, in spite of failing health, continued to look after the church altar. One of her favourite things to do was make seasonal floral bouquets from her beautiful garden to adorn the altar or the statues. It was a labour of love.

My folks celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a family Mass at the church in January 1989. Sadly, that summer, my Mother passed away. Her funeral mass was held at St. Augustine’s, with Fr. Mel Stevens officiating. Three years later, we were back for my Dad’s funeral service.

Since then we have returned to St. Augustine’s for nostalgic reasons, often for anniversaries or the funerals of parishioners that we had known and admired over the years.

On August 17, 2016, my husband Bill and I attended the weekday morning Mass.  It turned out to be an intimate affair since we were the only ones in church besides the priest. We shared the readings and Father Gabriel dedicated the prayers to us on this special day, our 48th wedding anniversary. Afterward we reminisced about days gone by in the parish. I looked around at the little church where much of my youth was spent. A place that offered peace and refuge, inspiration and friendship, a place that showed its imperfections as well as our own.

Most of all it was a place of spiritual nourishment, where people gathered and strived to be better, with the help of their faith and each other. A true Church of the People.

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