Powell River bids a sad farewell to St. Gerard’s – BC Catholic

After more than 60 years, St. Gerard’s Catholic Church in the Wildwood neighborhood of Powell River was closed for divine worship at the end of June.

The church, one of three active Catholic churches in Assumption Parish in the Qathet Regional District, was one of the largest and most remote parishes in the Archdiocese of Vancouver.

In the 1950s, Wildwood was home to a large community of Italian and Dutch Catholic immigrant families. Before St. Gerard’s was built, local Catholics would take the Powell River Company bus or walk several miles up Wildwood Hill and cross the river to attend Mass at St. Joseph’s in the townsite near the mill.

A living rosary in Saint-Gérard earlier this year.

Realizing that there was an urgent need for a neighborhood church to serve the community, Father Joseph McInerney (pastor 1947-1958), a devout Irish priest from Liverpool, obtained permission to build a neighborhood church on land donated to the parish by local farmers. He asked parishioners to help build a church dedicated to Italian St. Gerardo Maiella, and local workers gladly responded to his call to volunteer.

Father Joseph McInerney in the 1950s.

Father McInerney, concerned about the difficult pregnancies of certain families, dedicated the church to Saint Gerard, patron saint of pregnant women. The parishioners reacted immediately and built a beautiful neighborhood church.

One volunteer was Fausto DeVita, from Molise, Italy. It was proud to work on construction every day before or after his factory shift and said it was like building a highway to heaven. He has faithfully attended mass at Saint-Gérard since its opening in April 1957.

Fausto DeVita, who helped build Saint-Gérard in the 1950s and is still a parishioner today.

During these years, the Wildwood Church and its basement, known as the Dugout, became a center of community life. Father John Collins (pastor 1958-1967) allowed Tony, a Dutch immigrant in financial difficulty, to live in a basement suite in the church for a time. The generosity shown by Tony was not forgotten and years later when he passed away he bequeathed everything he owned in thanks to the church community.

The canoe was also the center of Italian social life with many gatherings, such as the annual wine competition.

A few years later, the Italian Community Club built its own hall on the highway in Wildwood and so the close bond between the church and the Italian community continued. Sister Claire Sapiano, missionary sister of Jesus of Nazareth of Malta, who was a teacher for several decades at the school of the Assumption, remembers with emotion having attended a mass said in Italian and presided over by Father Joseph O ‘Grady (pastor 1967-1970) at Community Hall Italian School, shortly after arriving in Powell River in 1968.

Elio Cossarin, an immigrant from Prodolone in Friuli, recalls that occasional Italian Missionary Masses with Father Arduino Gallanti were effective in helping fallen Italian Catholics who had difficulty with the English language by giving them the opportunity to confess in Italian. .

Another local tradition that has been preserved to the present day under the pastoral care of Father Patrick Tepoorten (pastor 2014-present) is to offer a special Mass at St. Gerard for deceased members of the Italian community. During this mass, the faithful receive candles in honor of their deceased loved ones.

The Bombardir family has been at the heart of the St. Gerard community since the beginning. Armando Bombardir, an immigrant from Torlano in Friuli, ran a neighborhood plumbing store and was one of the volunteers who built the church.

Sister Claire remembers that his wife Mary, born in Bagnoli del Trigno, carried the statue of Saint Gerard in her own hands around the church during the saint’s procession. When Armando Bombardir died in 1971, Mary commissioned a bell to be installed in Saint-Gérard in his honor.

Rob Bombardir with the bell of Saint Gerard, inscribed in Italian in memory of Armando Bombardir and Devozione dei Parrocchiani – the devotion of the parishioners. Below, the Bombardir brothers with the bell in 1972.

The craftsmen at the Marinelli Pontificia Fonderia di Campane in Agnone, near Bagnoli in Molise, who produced the bell say there is always magic in the making of a bell and that each bell has a different soul.

The bell is inscribed in Italian in memory of Armando Bombardir and Devozione dei Parrocchiani – the devotion of the parishioners. It also has a beautiful small image of Saint Joseph, who had been the patron saint of the parish of the town of the mill. The 500-pound bell was lifted by crane and installed in the new Saint-Gérard bell tower in 1972 by Armando’s four brothers and sons. For the rest of her life, whenever Mary approached the church, she looked up at the bell dedicated to her husband’s memory and made the sign of the cross. For decades, members of the Bombardir family have taken turns ringing the bell.

St. Gerard’s is remembered as a welcoming church where local residents of Wildwood would congregate. the church always remained a gathering place for special occasions and was filled to capacity at Christmas and Easter. For a time, there was a cafe in the basement as well as social events, including a concert with the Poppy Family, the hit Vancouver pop group.

In the early years, children growing up in Wildwood attended catechism there, and Father Victor Gallo (pastor 1970-1978), himself an Italian immigrant raised in Powell River, offered Mass in St. Gerard daily at midday.

Kathy Bennett, who grew up in Powell River and moved to Wildwood in 1979, recalls: “It was wonderful to be able to walk to church on a Sunday morning, push the baby in the stroller, enjoy people’s lessons and the morning birdsong along the way. And in winter, when it snowed, we pulled our children on sleds.

Kathy and Gerry Bennett at the christening of their daughter Andrea in 1983.

Her husband Gerry Bennett, from Sheffield in England, led the choir there in the 1990s, and large groups of children would meet in the homes of parishioners who lived nearby for tea and cookies after mass. In recent years, St. Gerard’s has been adopted as a home for the parish youth group and has been the center of various fellowship activities for the parish youth.

Marie Castellarin, born in Casarsa in Fruili, is another parishioner whose innocent nature and resounding voice have made Saint-Gérard a particularly welcoming place. Marie lived a stone’s throw from the church and watched over it, sometimes chasing troublemakers on the church grounds at night. She served the sacristy of Saint-Gérard for many years, led the rosary before mass and ran a small gift shop at the back of the church where she found herself preferring to offer the religious items in gift, “forgetting” to ask people to pay. for them.

Marie lived two doors down from Saint-Gérard and watched the troublemakers. She was also a sacristan and ran a small gift shop at the back of the church where she often gave away items as gifts, conveniently “forgetting” to ask people to pay for them.

Since most of the original families and younger generations left Wildwood, either moving to other parts of Powell River or to other communities in search of work, the decision to close Saint-Gérard to divine worship came as no huge surprise to parishioners, although it was saddening for those attached to the church and particularly disheartening for those who had worked to preserve it.

A few years ago the church was beautifully restored after a major fundraising effort from the community. Although youif there are no longer crowds of neighborhood children coming and going to church on Sunday mornings, the loss of St. Gerard will leave a gaping hole in the heart of the community. To their living memory, the bright little church stood there, like a lamp illuminating the Wildwood neighborhood.

What happens when a church is canonically closed to divine worship? The Church’s procedural guidelines state that “all sacred objects, relics, sacred furniture, stained glass windows, bells, confessionals, altars, etc. must be removed for use in other sacred buildings or kept in ecclesial custody. Because altars can never be turned into secular use, if they cannot be removed they must be destroyed.

Unfortunately, it may well be that the parishioners who once erected the altar, “the symbol of Christ himself, present in the midst of the assembly of his faithful” (CCC 1383), will have to destroy this same altar with their own hands. .

Despite this, parishioners pray that the closure of St. Gerard will not lead the faithful to lose heart or forget the inspiration and dedication of those who built the church and dedicated it to St. Gerard. To put everything into perspective, it is worth reflecting on the words of Scripture: “But the Lord did not choose the people because of the place, but the place because of the people” (2 Mk 5:19 ) .

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