The parish hall at St. Willibrord’s Parish in Verdun, Que., has been busy this month as parishioners volunteer for the Christmas Basket Project, an annual appeal that fills boxes with food and toys for more than 200 local families. One of the things that stands out to project coordinator Angele Justine Lafleche is the number of young ones who accompany their parents and help out in their own way. Photo by Christina Parsons

The spirit of Christmas past, present, future

  • December 18, 2023

With the predictability of the liturgical year, the church hall of St. Willibrord Church in Verdun, Que., is for the first weeks of December a hive of excited preparation as volunteers fill boxes with food and toys for over 200 local families.

Founded in 1913 to serve the Irish Catholic working-class population of the southwestern neighbourhood of Montreal, St. Willibrord has always been a parish that extends a helping hand to those in need.

Angele Justine Lafleche, coordinator of the Christmas Basket Project, says that though the program has been modernized, and is “perhaps more organized” now, the spirit of the project has remained consistent through the years.

“As long as the parish has existed, it’s provided for those in need,” Lafleche told The Catholic Register.

Lafleche grew up in the parish and remembers coming to the hall to help put canned goods in boxes.

“I have been the coordinator for 15 years, but I have been involved for a lot longer than that,” said Lafleche.

“I would come with my grandfather, and I met his buddies, who now, 30 years later, are my buddies and work with me in the Basket Project.

“As the coordinator, I get to see people in their 20s that came to volunteer as children with their grandparents, now turn up with their girlfriends, and I get to meet them. It’s just a magical thing to be a part of. Once you volunteer, you come back, it’s sort of contagious, it becomes part of people’s quality Christmas season.”

St. Willibrord church hall is named in honour of Fr. Joe Cameron, pastor from 1974 to 2009. Cameron exemplified the ethos of service that has been the hallmark of the parish. His 2020 obituary noted that “a knock on the parish door for aid or assistance rarely went unanswered and was met with a friendly greeting and a practical, compassionate response.”

It is therefore fitting that Cameron Hall should be the beating heart of the Christmas Basket Project.

Lafleche explained that the mammoth undertaking relies on volunteers from all over the city who provide different kinds of assistance.

“Everybody has their thing, some of our volunteers want to be behind the scenes and are the ones who do the interviews, others just want to go hard on delivery day, loading up the cars or doing the deliveries,” said Lafleche.

“We also have some wonderful ‘Friends of Baskets,’ as we call them that do their own huge toy drives with their families and then bring it to us.”

Lafleche says that, on average, 200 individuals and families are provided for, but that the number can extend higher, depending on need.

“We interview every single one, in a nice, friendly way, to inquire as to what their needs are, so we can customize what they need. We ask them how big their family is, how old their children are, so that we know just how much food they might need to cover the whole Christmas holiday, as well as toys.”

Lafleche is now the mother of a two-year-old daughter, Éva. As Lafleche moves around the church hall, chatting with the volunteers and taking phone calls from suppliers, she carries her toddler on her hip.  

When asked what stands out to her as the most special element of the yearly campaign, Lafleche says that “it’s seeing the little ones, especially those under five, here in Cameron Hall.”

“It’s probably the only place that would allow small children to be handling canned goods and volunteering at such a young age. So many of our parishioners’ children have been doing it their whole life now. There’s nothing more special than witnessing that. They may not understand fully what they’re doing, but if an adult sees that happening, they’re sold on the project and they’ll be a part of it.”

For parishioner and organizer Christina Parsons, whose own teenage daughter is one of those children who has spent every December weekend helping, every year provides a multiplication of graces.

“Every year we begin not knowing where it’s all going to come from, but every year we put our faith in God and our little efforts are multiplied and we pull off this mini miracle with God’s help and our network of ‘Basket friends,’ ” said Parsons.

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