A group photo was taken on Feb. 17 after the first Mass was held at St. Isidore Parish in Vita, Man., since 2011. Photo from Edwin Sonsona

Filipino Catholics resurrect Manitoba parish

  • March 10, 2024

The revival of St. Isidore Parish in Vita, Man., 13 years after it closed in 2011 due to a dwindling congregation, was sparked by curiosity.

Edwin Sonsona, a Catholic who immigrated to Canada from the Philippines with his family in 2007, noticed the Filipino Canadians who used to venture 50 kilometres from Vita to Steinbach to attend Eucharistic celebrations at Christ Our Saviour Parish were no longer coming. He texted his friend Audrey Cua to ask where she and her loved ones were celebrating Mass these days. She replied nowhere as life and work became so busy. 

Sonsona, Steinbach chapter head of Missionary Families of Christ, a worldwide lay evangelization organization that started in the Philippines, enjoys monthly audiences with the Archbishop of Saint Boniface, Albert LeGatt. At a Jan. 6 meeting, Sonsona asked, “Your Grace, do we have a Catholic church in Vita?”

“He said, ‘yeah we have, but we shut it down and closed it because there were no more parishioners and no priest.’ My questions didn’t stop. I (asked), ‘could we reopen it?’ ”

Sonsona told LeGatt there are newcomer Filipino Catholics who would benefit from a house of worship in their community. 

Two weeks after the meeting, Sonsona received a message from Fr. Paul Nguyen, pastor of Saint-Malo Parish, stating he received permission to reopen St. Isidore’s.

Nguyen, who was ordained 21 months ago, said being invited by LeGatt to celebrate Mass in Vita “touched me deeply for different reasons.”

“Firstly, it was because the Archbishop trusted me to take care of that community,” said Nguyen, a 36-year-old originally from Vietnam. “Secondly, I saw that the people there were hungry for pastoral care, sacraments and receiving the Word of God. The third reason was I felt this is what God called me to do.”

Before hosting any liturgical services, the 60-year-old building — the original church was built in 1902 — had to be inspected.

“We went in the last week of January, and oh my goodness, there were many things to do here,” said Sonsona. “There was no heating, and there was dirt, cobwebs and flies inside. I thought, ‘how are we going to do this?’

“I looked at the altar and said to St. Isidore, ‘St. Isidore, help me. What am I going to do?” he recalled with a chuckle.

Sonsona engaged some locals, called friends with expertise in heating and plumbing and recruited his cleaning services employees from MECCCC General Services Ltd. to help bring the shuttered parish up to standard. The cleanup only took three days.

On Feb. 17, the First Sunday of Lent, the metal gate protecting the property was opened and vehicles ventured through the weathered welcome arch that originally read, “St. Isidore RC Parish.” The ‘S’ in Isidore and parish both wore out over time.

Over 80 people attended the inaugural Saturday night Mass. Sonsona, honoured to be the first bell ringer in 13 years, said it was a powerful service.

“The people had tears of joy in their eyes,” said Sonsona. “They never expected this church would open again. They are also very grateful for Fr. Paul Nguyen. Without him, this would not have happened.”

That day, Nguyen reflected upon the rarity of this opportunity.

“Here in Canada, you hear more and more about churches closing, but not often are they allowed to reopen. I felt that this is what we are called to do, not only in terms of individuals but also in the name of the Church. This is part of the New Evangelization.”

There is still maintenance work to do in the weeks ahead. The priorities are repairing the roof, setting up a water system and installing an indoor bathroom (they’ve rented a Port-a-Potty for now.).

Spiritually, the plan is to offer a Mass in Vita each Saturday. After Easter, Nguyen plans to ramp up the pastoral services in the community. He also plans to work out of Vita one or two days a week.

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