Catholic Social Services (CSS) is the province’s pioneer of putting into action Christ’s command to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and welcome the stranger.
What began as the vision of one passionate priest, Monsignor Bill Irwin, is today the largest social service agency in Alberta.
Irwin recruited a handful of board members and volunteers in 1961 to found CSS, and the agency has aided the people of northern and central Alberta ever since.
“It’s very humbling, and awe-inspiring at the same time, to have been part of an organization that’s pioneered so many charitable services,” said CEO Troy Davies.
“Through our 60 years we’ve always remained grounded in that call contained in Matthew’s Gospel.”
The vision of a Catholic social service agency for Alberta began in the 1950s. Crime, addiction, domestic violence and mental illness were beginning to gain public attention. The profession of social work was also beginning, and Irwin felt the Church needed to play a critical role in addressing these issues.
With the support of the Edmonton Archdiocese, the priest earned a Master of Social Work degree in 1959. Two years later, Irwin and eight other board members founded CSS, initially called Catholic Charities.
Their first efforts included welfare and counselling agencies, a prenatal care centre for single mothers, and the Christmas Hamper Drive, an annual donations campaign for people living in poverty.
CSS broke new ground in many of its services. Irwin’s unshakeable faith and determination was known to be the backbone of it all.
“CSS has a long history of venturing out from the safety of the shoreline. That’s the sense of spirit we have,” said Davies.
“A great example of that is Kairos House — an effort that took a real act of courage on Monsignor Irwin’s part.”
Kairos House, established in 1987, was the first care centre in Alberta for people living with HIV and AIDS. Discrimination was rampant at this time, and it was only the bold compassion of Irwin that made the program possible.
“After hearing horror stories of how gay men living with AIDs were being treated, Father Irwin recognized a need for this ministry,” said Charlotte McKay, vice-president with community outreach and disability services. “There was a lot of stigma then. People were being fired from their jobs, abandoned by their families, many were dying and completely alone.”
Even many of CSS’s senior management team were initially against Kairos House.
“They felt it would harm our image as a Catholic organization,” McKay said. “From what I’ve been told, Father Bill came down hard on his team. He talked about how Christ ministered to all, and asked them what Jesus would do if He were here.”
Numerous calls, letters and even bomb threats came out against the facility. Kairos House also received initial criticism from some in the gay community, who felt the organization was just trying to convert them.
Now, CSS is credited with breaking down some of the prejudices around HIV and AIDs. Similar organizations opened in the province in later years, such as HIV Community Link in Calgary.
More than 150 people have lived at Kairos House, and today it has four residents. Jane, a resident whose full name has been withheld, was diagnosed with HIV 19 years ago. For her, Kairos House is more than a support program. It’s the place she calls home.
“I’m in love with this place. I’ll probably never move out of here,” she said. “It has helped a lot. I know I’m not alone in what I go through. I have my own space to retreat when I feel like it. It’s given me the resources to heal and see my self-worth and appreciate life again. ”
“I believe in my heart they saved me.”
Knowing the obstacles faced in forming Kairos House, if Jane could meet Monsignor Irwin she would gladly express her thanks.
“I would tell him I’m so grateful,” she said. “My life depends on this place. To be treated like a person and not a plague, it’s such a support to my will and spirit.”
That same innovative and compassionate spirit that created Kairos House lives at CSS today. St. Joseph’s Home, founded in 2017, is Alberta’s first hospice service for the homeless.
“The vulnerability of these people who were at the end of their life with no place to call home and no voice of support — it’s been a real concern of ours,” said McKay.
In keeping with the Catholic heart of their service, St. Joseph’s Home also ensures people are given spiritual care.
“We support people to their natural death,” she said. “We help them to re-establish relationships with loved ones, experience forgiveness and hope, and maintain their purpose in life.”
“They are very grateful to have someone care about them in their final days. The family and friends involved are really relieved that this person is able to receive some compassionate care and die with dignity.”
Over her 30 years with CSS, McKay has seen the agency grow in multiple ways. She’s witnessed the creation of the McDaniel Manor for seniors with developmental disabilities, the Welcome Home program to help formerly homeless people build friendships, and many lives changed and saved through their work.
“There’s been a lot of growth, expansions and developments in a lot of areas. We’ve even had to change our department name three times,” she said. “Whenever the need arose, we just had to find a way to meet that need.”
Solange Nyantabara knows that firsthand. When she was 11, Nyantabara fled a war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. She spent nine years in a refugee camp before arriving in Edmonton in 2013.
Since she arrived, CSS has been the guiding light in her journey.
“When we arrived at Edmonton International Airport, there was an employee who welcomed us and made us feel really safe. Everyone we saw was full of smiles,” she said.
“We always appreciate Catholic Social Services. They helped us from Day One. They took us shopping around the city, looked for our first home, told us where we could go to school, when there was a job fair, everything.”
The department of immigration and resettlement has become one of CSS’s most vital services. When vice-president Alice Colak joined the department in the early 1970s, it had only one paid staff member. Today it has 200.
On average, CSS now welcomes 14,000 people every year, including refugees, migrants and temporary foreign workers. The agency’s main role is to help migrants integrate and rebuild their lives in Canadian society.
“They can’t advocate for themselves if they’re not familiar with the systems or the language, so part of our role is advocacy,” said Colak. “We help them navigate to access health, education, employment, their own cultural or faith communities, all kinds of things.
“We call it an orientation to life in Canada.”
Through CSS, Nyantabara was able to find the Glory to God Assembly Church, a multicultural Pentecostal church in Edmonton. Colak says faith helps many migrants find their own community supports and avoid isolation.
“Faith has played a big role for me,” Nyantabara said. “My family survived by believing that God would do something and lead us to better things.”
Since 1979, 5,000 refugees have been sponsored by 80 parishes in the Edmonton Archdiocese.
During the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015-2016, around 1,500 sponsored refugees were resettled through CSS — more than triple their yearly average. It shows the contributions of the Catholic community are vital to the agency’s success, said Colak.
“Our capacity was stretched but thankfully the support was there,” she said. “The Church has always been supportive of Catholic Social Services. Since we started, the Archbishop has been there to support our programs and bless our facilities.”
Monsignor Irwin died in 2004 at the age of 76, but he’s left a permanent legacy across Alberta. His memory is honoured in Edmonton with a namesake park and an elementary school. But it is in the work of CSS that his legacy is most renowned.
The agency now serves more than 20,000 people every year. Hundreds of programs and thousands of saved lives make up their six-decade ministry. What unites all of their programs and services is CSS’s dedication to the sanctity of life, ‘from womb to tomb.’
“We’ve always maintained an adamant respect for the dignity of each person,” said Davies. “Every person that CSS has the privilege to serve is sacred. We recognize that every person should be loved as a son or daughter of God.
“We’ve always reached out to those on the margins and tried to bring them back to the centre. That has run through the founding of our agency to the present day.”