Rafael Srebrnic at the altar at Marija Pomagaj Church in Toronto. Photo by Patricia Srebrnic

Soon to be 96, this altar boy refuses to slow down

  • March 16, 2023

On April 2, Rafael Srebrnič is set to turn 96 years old. 

His impressive longevity — like all men and women blessed to live this long — is to be admired. 

However, what is striking and unique about Srebrnič is that he’s still active in his Toronto Slovenian parish, as an altar server and in the choir. 

This places the nonagenarian Srebrnič in rarefied company. Conducting a Google search with the key phrase “oldest altar server” reveals that only a handful of people have worn the white robes of an altar server into their 90s. 

A Slovenian ex-pat from the former Yugoslavia who arrived in Canada in the 1950s, Srebrnič joined forces with a big wave of his people who emigrated to Canada to build Marija Pomagaj Church (Our Lady Help of Christians), currently located at 611 Manning Ave. in Toronto. The parish has served the Slovenian community for nearly 70 years. 

Since Slovenian is Srebrnič’s first language, and he does not often converse in English, his daughter Maria O’Connell spoke to The Catholic Register about her father’s service in his stead. She outlined Srebrnič’s lengthy service history at Our Lady Help of Christians.

“He was a barber by training, and his side hustle was taking care of the church property,” said O’Connell. “He would be responsible for cleaning the church, opening and closing the doors when events were on, and he would be responsible for snow removal. He repaired what needed repairing.

“He serves as an altar boy now. The church is not what it was. When I grew up there, it was a vibrant community, but it has dwindled. Families moved away, small children stopped coming, and there was a need for altar boys. He stepped in and became an altar boy.”

This is on top of his duties with teh parish choir, his daughter says. 

“His long-time passion there is being in the church choir. He’s been in the choir for nearly 60 years,” said O’Connell.

His role as an altar server dates back about a quarter century. O’Connell said he assumed this role after the passing of his wife, Theresa, in 1998. She, too, was a Slovenian emigrant. They were married for over three decades. 

“I think he decided to build up his sense of community and to deal with the grief of my mother’s loss,” said O’Connell. “That was his way of serving. There was a need there, and he filled that need.”

O’Connell and Srebrnič’s other daughter, Patricia, were initially concerned about their father in the wake of their mother’s death because “widowers don’t tend to do as well as widows,” said O’Connell, but they found “the church community has stepped in and became his support.”

“The presence and thought of God, and serving God through that church community — my sister and I believe if that weren’t present, he would be gone,” said O’Connell.

In addition to maintaining his vigour through service, Srebrnič is an avid walker.

“He’s a bit naughty,” said O’Connell with a chuckle. “We tell him not to go out in the ice and snow, but he ignores us.”

He is blessed with four grandchildren — the oldest is 28, the youngest 16 — who keep him young. Spending time in the garden is also energizing work each summer and O’Connell claims Srebrnič “grows the best cherry tomatoes.”

This man of service was largely deprived of his vocation in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was tough for a man so interwoven in his church community, being isolated from it for long stretches. It is well-documented that many people suffered due to these prolonged social separations. O’Connell said her father’s strong spirituality helped him weather this hardship.

“My dad always knew there was a bigger picture going on. He was in our family bubble of five. He didn’t see anyone else, but he survived. There was not that depression or agitation that you heard about (from people). He said, ‘God is looking after me, and He is taking care of me.’ ”

And Srebrnič remains passionate about caring for the Lord’s house as he approaches his 96th birthday. 

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