Msgr. Sam Bianco has been active in a wide range of ministries. Photo by Emanuel Pires

Keeping faith with The Shepherds’ Trust

By  Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo, Catholic Register Special
  • November 1, 2019

Msgr. Sam Bianco still remembers the week five decades ago when he couldn’t get rid of the chills. As a seminarian at St. Basil’s Seminary in the Toronto School of Theology, he took a course called the inner-city plunge, which challenged participants to live the life of a street person for a week.

“We simply had the clothes on our backs,” said Bianco. “We were sent out at nine o’clock in the morning to come back in one week, with no money, and see how we survived.” 

To make it through the week, he visited soup kitchens, the Good Shepherd Ministries and the Scott Mission. He even slept outside at Allan Gardens. 

“It was the middle of summer and when you’re a street person — I had beat-up old clothes and a beat-up old trench coat — you’re always cold.” 

That experience helped to form his perspective on the importance of offering a helping hand to those who suffer, a key theme in Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic’s 1996 Pastoral Letter, “A Faith that Acts.” Bianco’s ministry as a priest has embodied faith in action, always caring for those in need — a method of evangelization in and of itself. 

Now retired, Bianco remains active in ministry and is grateful for the support he receives from The Shepherds’ Trust. Living expenses provided by The Shepherds’ Trust, which supports retired priests in the Archdiocese of Toronto, allow retired priests to maintain a safe and dignified lifestyle and, if they choose, to remain active in pastoral and charitable ministry.

There are 93 priests in the Archdiocese of Toronto relying on support from The Shepherds’ Trust. Over the next decade approximately 70 priests are expected to retire from active ministry after they turn 75.

In addition to ever-increasing costs of living for housing, transportation, clothes and food, these priests face rising health costs, including extended health care to cover surgery and other expenses, as well as expenses for personal support workers and, at the end of life, palliative care. Founded by lay people, the Trust relies on support of parishioners across the city who are asked to demonstrate “caring for those who always cared for us.” The 2019 campaign culminates Nov. 16-17 with an archdiocese-wide collection. 

Bianco’s retirement is a busy one. He is involved with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Daily TV Mass, and every Thursday he says Mass for the Sisters of St. Joseph at their retirement residence, followed by lunch and fellowship. He also helps out at Blessed Sacrament Parish and is vice-chair of both the Council of Priests and of the Collegium at the University of St. Michael’s College. 

Bianco acts as spiritual advisor for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, helping to train spiritual animators to ensure all gatherings begin with prayer. This continues work he began during his time as rector of St. Michael’s Cathedral, when Bianco re-started the local chapter.

“He’d go out on a weekly basis to meet neighbours in need,” says Louise Coutu, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Toronto Central Council, who met Bianco 35 years ago when he was pastor at Our Lady of Sorrows in Etobicoke, Ont. “His sincerity lies in the fact that he is willing to participate.”

Bianco has always been involved in the Society’s work, thanks to the influence of his dad. 

“My father told me stories of how tough it was in the (Great) Depression — and that he himself had been at soup kitchens — so that was deeply engrained in me as a child.”

Years later, when homelessness was on the rise in Toronto, he launched the cathedral’s first-ever Out of the Cold program. During his years as rector, he was guided by three pillars: preaching, prayer and poor persons.

A friendly face at St. Francis Residence, a long-term home for residents facing mental health challenges, Bianco visits for lunch every week. 

“A lot of them are disenfranchised,” explains Coutu. “They don’t have a lot of people paying attention to them, so his visits have always been very positive. For someone to know the names of residents is big.”

When residents pass away, he ensures they get a proper and personal burial, as many don’t have families, Coutu added. “He’s always brought the Church to the people. He bridges the gap.”

Another part of Bianco’s ministry that holds a special place in his heart was serving as chaplain for the religious education of children with mental or physical challenges. 

“I was the religion co-ordinator along with a wonderful nun, Sr. Mary Hamilton, CND, teaching First Communion and Confirmation to all the children with disabilities who weren’t in the school system 40 years ago,” he said.

Born and raised in Hamilton, Ont., Bianco was ordained a Basilian priest. This teaching charism was influenced by the high calibre of Catholic education he received from priests and laity over the years — at the Cathedral Boys’ High School in Hamilton and the University of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto.

After about a decade as a Basilian, he was incardinated, which means he transitioned from being a part of a religious order to becoming a diocesan priest. His ease in front of an audience also made him a good fit for the Daily TV Mass, which launched at St. Michael’s Cathedral while he was rector. 

“Bishop (John) Sherlock did the first TV Mass and I did the second one. For five years, I used to celebrate at least once per week.” 

Twenty-one years later — he turns 80 this month — he’s still contributing twice per month. 

Bianco is grateful he’s been blessed with good health, which has allowed him to continue serving the Catholic community in so many different ways. As Coutu says, “Msgr. Bianco is not a halfway guy.” 

When he commits to something, he’s all in. His commitment to helping those in need has embodied a faith in action — one that doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

(Santilli-Raimondo is a communications co-ordinator in the Office of Public Relations and Communications for the Archdiocese of Toronto.)

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