Walking with Newcomers
Nineteen Roman Catholic Men and Women Religious congregations have come together to assist immigrants and refugees as friends, guides and mentors during their initial adjustment to the country. They have established Becoming Neighbours, a "joint apostolic ministry" — the first such effort in the city of Toronto.
"As religious congregations, we have always cooperated in many ways," said Father Peter McKenna SCJ, Director of Becoming Neighbours, "But we have never before collaborated in this way on a program."
This ministry of presence matches a congregation member with a newcomer referred by a settlement agency. Newcomers arrive with a wide variety of needs; companions can assist with friendly visiting during which some of these needs can be attended to.
A companion is described by Father Peter as "one who shares bread." Sister Cecelia Tallack is one such companion.
"I love working with people," says Sister Cecelia, "Paperwork just doesn’t appeal." Sister Cecilia is uniquely skilled for this ministry. She has, among other things, worked both as a schoolteacher and principal for 40 years in five provinces and spent 10 years in Haiti on mission work.
"This rich mix of skills is the typical background of the Men and Women Religious who join us in this ministry," said Father Peter. "They can then handle this new identity as a gospel presence to newcomers to our land." There are 25 companions now matched with 33 newcomers whom they will accompany during their first phase of settlement, that is one to two years.
In 2003, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto invited other religious congregations to explore with them the establishment of a joint apostolic ministry. In her letter to the congregations, Sister Margaret Myatt, CSJ congregational leader, stated, "The needs of the Church in the world are great and we, as individual congregations, can’t begin to address those needs ourselves. Our Leadership Team feels compelled by the Spirit to be a catalyst and to look for the resonance of the Spirit among others." Her Leadership Team conferred with the Leadership Teams of other congregations and further meetings were held.
A subcommittee with membership from many congregations was formed. Fontbonne Ministries’ administrator, Joan Breech and program coordinator, Vickie McNally, assisted the process. A feasibility study pointed to the needs of the city’s immigrants and refugees. In November 2005, the group committed to establishing this ministry as a two-year pilot project.
Becoming Neighbours is guided by an Advisory Committee and a Board of Directors. Companions receive an orientation and are supported by regular meeting for theological reflection. Some religious become companions in prayer and pray daily for individuals in the program. When a newcomer was praised for all the progress she had made, she replied, "I have done nothing. All has been God. Please thank my prayer partner."
Becoming Neighbours, together with the financial assistance of Catholic Charities, has just produced a resource directory to aid newcomers. The booklet provides 75 pages of basic information for newcomers from sponsorship programs to how to locate dental care. A copy has been sent to every Catholic parish in Toronto.
When asked about milestones in the program, Father Peter replied, "Our milestones are when people realize they are loved and valued for who they are."
For more information, call 416-267-4817 or visit www.becomingneighbours.ca.