Mary and Stan Surman have been active parishioners at St. Leo’s in Toronto for the last five decades. Photo by Mickey Conlon

Fifty years and counting: Serving the Church comes naturally for the Surmans

By 
  • January 4, 2019

Stan Surman has officially been retired for more than 20 years, but not when it comes to his work at church.

At 90 years old, Surman is not about to stop giving back to the institution that he says has given him so much in his lifetime. Most important, it’s where he met his wife, Mary, 61 years ago.

“The Lord’s been good to us,” said Surman in the living room of his home in the Mimico neighbourhood of west Toronto, just minutes from St. Leo’s Parish on Royal York Road that has been like a second home for the Surmans for the past five decades.

The Surmans have been faithful parishioners and contributors to the parish over that whole time, with Surman standing out as the oldest active altar server. It’s a ministry Surman has helped out with for the past 20 years when he and two other seniors at St. Leo’s regularly aided the parish priest at Sunday Mass, funerals and other special occasions. Of the original three, Stan is the only one remaining.

“I’ve outlasted them all,” he said, smiling.

He serves all the funerals at the west-end parish and most of the special Masses during the year. He does Sunday Masses as well, and has often answered the call on short notice with pastor Fr. Frank Carpinelli calling him out of the pews to serve if they are shorthanded for that particular Mass.

It’s not hard to see that the Church has been good to the Surmans. After all, without the Church they may never have met.

Both were born in Poland pre-Second World War. He arrived in Canada as an eight-year-old before the war’s outbreak, settling with his family on a farm in Loretto, Ont., east of Orangeville. Mary, now 81, spent her infant years in her war-ravaged homeland before coming to Canada at age 11 where her family settled in the heavily Polish-populated Parkdale area of Toronto. 

When Surman came as a young man to Toronto, he also gravitated to the neighbourhood and the hub for many of the city’s Polish descendants, St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish just off of Queen Street West between Bathurst and Spadina.

“That’s where I met this guy,” said Mary.

The Surmans were heavily involved in parish life at St. Stan’s. Both sang in the choir, where their paths would initially cross. Their relationship bloomed, leading to marriage 61 years ago and the four boys and a daughter they raised after relocating to the hardscrabble, working-class Mimico neighbourhood where Surman worked at Continental Can until it closed shop in the early 1990s.

Giving back to the Church as an altar server is but a blip in Surman and his family’s service to the parish. Both continued singing in the choir after they moved to St. Leo’s — Mary still does — and have been mainstays in various capacities and ministries. For the past 30 years they have been lay eucharistic ministers and each month bring communion to patients at St. Joseph’s Hospital, where Mary also volunteers once a week. Surman has been busy helping in the upkeep of St. Leo’s. His interest in woodworking came in handy as he helped redo the kneelers in the pews and a piano. He and one of his sons also painted the sacristy after renovations were complete. And each year he plants the flowers and a vegetable garden at St. Leo’s.

“It kept me going. I was happy I was able to help out,” he said.

Their offspring have also carried on in Church circles. Two of their four sons — all of whom attended St. Michael’s Choir School — serve in music ministry, one in Tottenham, Ont., another in Nashville. And a grandson, one of five grandchildren, teaches music at St. Joseph’s College School in downtown Toronto.

Carpinelli has been pastor at St. Leo’s for almost 12 years and has appreciated what the Surmans have brought to the parish.

“Stan and Mary, they’re just solid, dependable people precisely because of their faith,” said Carpinelli. “They’re humble, they’re downright unassuming, they’re not exacting. They are extremely, sincerely friendly and open to people. And I think that tells you a lot about the kind of Catholics they are.”

It’s been a two-way street for the Surmans though. As much as they have helped the Church, the Church has been there for them. It has given them strength through the bad times, particularly when their youngest son died in a car crash.

“It’s what keeps us going, especially after we lost our son,” said Mary. “I think we’d have collapsed if we didn’t have the Church.”

“The Church and cards,” adds Surman, lightening up the moment in explaining they play cards about four times a week at the Sisters of St. Joseph’s Village Mosaic, a gathering place for seniors around the corner from them on Lakeshore Boulevard.

Though they have slowed down some — Surman no longer attends daily Mass due to sleep issues, though his wife carries on — staying active remains a priority. Surman plans to continue as an altar server and eucharistic minister for the foreseeable future, and Mary has no plans of stopping either.

“It’s a busy life, it’s good to be busy,” said Surman.

That doesn’t surprise Carpinelli. “They are working class people, they are unassuming, they’re not demanding and they’re generous,” he said.

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