Building hope at Jane and Finch

  • September 5, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - It’s a neighbourhood known to outsiders for its gang and gun violence, prostitution and poverty. Yet the ethnically diverse community surrounding the infamous Jane and Finch intersection in northwest Toronto has a ray of hope in the form of St. Augustine of Canterbury parish.

After 10 years of developing outreach programs for youth, adults, seniors and family — and not just limited to Catholics — the church, which sits a few blocks north of Finch Ave, is preparing to build a family centre to provide even more.

“There is a massive vacuum between the need and what’s being provided (in the community) and (Fr. Daniel Mentesana’s) programs are filling the vacuum,” said David Meyers, chair of the capital campaign committee for the construction of the John Paul The Great Family Centre, planned for construction within the next year.

For the past 10 years, St. Augustine pastor Mentesana has been thinking up ways to better serve the community of 35,000 people that surrounds his church, Meyers said. He said he remembers when his boys started answering “we’re going to the church” on a regular basis. Mentesana had set up a ping-pong table and would organize games of soccer and other informal programs throughout the year.

“One of the assets of this particular parish is that they have tremendous participation from the volunteer level,” Meyers said. “It’s not a question of whether we can get the proper programs out; it’s not a question of whether they will be well-attended. The problem is really one of facility.”

Meyers said that in the past eight months, the committee has been able to raise $500,000 for the family centre — “in a community that has no money,” he added.

“That’s how much people support this project and how badly it’s needed,” he said. “From both within the community and outside the community, if we’re able to provide this parish with the resources then I personally believe that some fantastic things can be done.”

The archdiocese of Toronto has loaned $1.135-million for the $1.65-million project, which also included repairs to the church roof.

Sept. 7 was to be the ground-breaking ceremony for the family centre, which will be approximately 10,000 square feet and will include a hall-gymnasium, kitchen, meeting rooms, foyer, offices and storage space. 

Today, the parish offers activities in three main languages (English, Italian and Spanish) but serves a community of more than 40 different nationalities. The church activities include prayer groups, perpetual adoration, after-school programs for kids, weekly catechism for kids, youth and adults, spiritual retreats, assistance to the poor, sick and elderly, defence and promotion groups for life and family, Bible studies, devotional groups, family weekends, youth weekends, social gatherings, cultural and arts presentations and more.

At the ground-breaking ceremony (after The Register’s press deadline), the parish also planned to bury two time capsules — a historical capsule and one with a mission statement and a list of things it would like to have accomplished by a certain date, which will be revisited and revised if necessary.

Mentesana said he would love to expand the after-school children’s program from two days a week to five. It currently runs from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays and has grown from a small group of six kids to 30 in only two years.

“Another thing also, we would like to enlarge our food bank and also offer some prepared food,” Mentesana said. “Here we have more than 50 families who are knocking on the door permanently for food.”

Providing both food and personal support to the community is very important, Mentesana said, which is why he also goes  door to door every year with a group of seminarians, sisters and lay people (anywhere from 25 to 40 people) on a mission outreach throughout the entire neighbourhood.

“In that way, we can know the people, their needs and at the same time in order to assist them and invite them to come participate in our programs as well as volunteer,” Mentesana said.

Mentesana also takes a group of people to visit seniors living close by. He said that some of the elderly live completely alone. In two different cases elderly people died without anyone discovering the corpses until a few days later. So with volunteers, he visits the elderly residents, cleans their apartment, brings them some food and invites them to the church programs. 

Anthony Opoku-Boateng, a parishioner from Ghana, said Mentesana was a gift from God for the parish.

“Fr. Daniel struggled hard to bring all these things together,” he said. “Everybody in the area knows what he is doing. He is bringing hope to the people.”

A father of three, Opoku-Boateng added that his boys can be seen daily playing basketball in the church parking lot.

“This area will have a good life, especially the kids,” he said. “My kids, here is their home.”

The church plans to host more educational activities for the children in the neighbourhood — regardless of religion — like intramural sports to keep children off the streets and draw them to a place where they will be safe and have access to strong faith formation.

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