Airport chapel closes after 30 years

By  Sara Loftson, The Catholic Register
  • January 16, 2007

TORONTO - After nearly 30 years in operation the airport chapel at Lester B. Pearson International Airport's Terminal 2 will close Jan. 28. This comes just one day before the Greater Toronto Airport Authority closes Terminal 2 altogether.

The chapel was the first religious presence at the airport when it opened in 1979.

For Nuala Connolly those early days bring back a flood of memories.

"Just the whole beginnings of this were very profound. Eventually, it became so profound in many lives," said Connolly.

And hers was no exception. For years she attended daily Mass with a small group of nine co-workers. On Sundays she brought her family to celebrate Mass where both of her sons served as altar boys. Over the years she's attended baptisms and memorial services for the deceased at the chapel.

Connolly has made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Guadalupe and Lourdes with the chaplaincy, which has also visited Rome and Fatima among other holy places. Although Connolly has since retired as an Air Canada customer sales representative, she's still actively involved with the chapel, sitting on its board of directors.

In the beginning it was Catholic lay airport staff that approached Cardinal Gerald Emmett Carter, then archbishop of Toronto, to ask if a priest could celebrate Mass on Sundays. The cardinal responded by appointing Msgr. Paul Healy as the first full-time priest months after the official opening of the Terminal 2 chapel.

"He didn't stop, he went to every corner (of the airport)," said Connolly, fondly remembering Healy's outgoing and pastoral nature. Healy is now retired, living near Dublin, Ireland, at a Passionist Monastery.

One of Healy's lasting legacies was establishing a permanent tabernacle on site. Since the chapel is ecumenical, this initially posed a problem for other denominations who share the facilities. But a compromise was reached and each chapel — there is a chapel in each of the airport's three terminals — houses the Holy Eucharist.

The chapels are staffed by three priests: Fr. Terrence McKenna, Fr. Thomas Day and Msgr. Edmond Putrimas, who ministers part time, as well as clergy from other faiths. The three men will continue working at the airport.

Mass is celebrated daily at each chapel and four Masses are celebrated on Sunday. Airport staff, passengers and passengers' families are the main users of the airport chaplaincy. It has proved particularly important for airport staff whose busy and irregular schedules often stop them from attending Mass at a local parish.

"Ministry of presence is a very strong (force) that creeps into the subculture of the travelling public," said Putrimas. "All of a sudden you have a very silent presence that sometimes makes them stop."

Besides celebrating Mass and other sacraments at the chapel, Day said they are usually found outside the chapel among the crowd.

Each chaplain keeps a stash of small gold-coloured angel pins close by to hand out with a prayer card. So far they've given out more than 3,000 pins.

Day said he's heard confessions in the hallways as he walks alongside people. People just start talking about things they haven't done right. Once they're finished he says, "well you've just gone to confession and now I'll give you absolution."

Putrimas adds he often has between-flight spiritual discussions with flight crews or with a passenger who asked if he'll pray with them.

Putrimas said the past seven years since he's been an airport chaplain have been some of the most turbulent times in airport history with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the global SARS epidemic in 2003 and the Air France plane crash in 2005.

Had the first efforts to get Terminal 2 up and running never taken place, Connolly said, there would have been a major void.

The Terminal 1 and 3 chapels, otherwise known as interfaith centres, will continue to operate as usual while a closing Mass will be held in the Terminal 2 chapel Jan. 28 at 12 p.m. with a reception to follow.

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