There was a time when St. Patrick’s Catholic church and the elementary school it shares the grounds with at 12th and Main would be teeming with children and families of Irish descent.
Same goes for the high school at 11th and Quebec. There were the McDonald, Tonner and Kelly families. The O’Tooles, the Clarkes and the Phelans were others. The Italians also had a presence. Today, the church and the schools continue to thrive in a Mount Pleasant neighbourhood that has seen a transformative change since the 1950s and 1960s. That change has been led by a Filipino community that has flourished in Mount Pleasant and effectively kept the church and schools from a population dip.
The estimate from Father Vincent Hawkswell, the church’s pastor, is that 75 per cent of the 2,000 parishioners who attend Sunday services are Filipino. The majority of students at the schools are also Filipino, although it’s not as high at the secondary school, which is a regional school that allows students from as far away as Tsawwassen. “The Catholic church in Vancouver would be suffering drastically if there wasn’t the Filipino population,” said Hawkswell, when asked what the St. Patrick’s community would be without the commitment from Filipinos. “Really, it’s the equivalent to what the Irish did a little over a century ago when they came across to North America.”
Like the Irish, he said, the Filipinos have learned to adapt to their new communities, work hard and enliven an already rich multicultural city. “I would say they integrate beautifully, without losing their own culture,” Hawkswell said. “They’re not exclusive, not ghettoish.”
Segundo Padolina, 63, left the Philippines in 1974 for Winnipeg. That city’s snowy winters forced him to settle in Vancouver in 1980. He and his wife Clarita have been parishioners at St. Patrick’s since they arrived.
Their two children, who are now adults, went to school at St. Patrick’s and attended the church. Padolina, a retired welder, said the warmth of people from all backgrounds and strong community spirit have kept him going to St. Patrick’s. “Number one, it’s the atmosphere,” he said. “It’s like a family there. If the atmosphere wasn’t like that, I don’t think people would go. Everybody’s welcome there.”
Padolina used to attend the old church, built in 1910, on the 12th Avenue side of the property. It was demolished a decade ago. A large recreation centre was built in its place while a new, larger church now occupies most of the block on Main Street between 12th and 13th.
While the congregation is predominantly Filipino, Hawkswell pointed out the remaining 25 per cent are a mix of parishioners from Asian countries, including Sri Lanka, and a sprinkling of Irish and Italians and others.
Despite the large Filipino population, all masses are conducted in English, although there are some events during the year where a Tagalog-speaking priest leads a service.
While many Irish moved out of the city and Italians shifted east to Burnaby and other suburbs, Hawkswell believes there is another reason for their slim presence at the church. “A number of them have let their faith slip,” he said, noting the Catholic church continues with its campaign for inactive Catholics to return to the church.
Hawkswell is welcoming them back and any other Catholic that wants to join a rich community history he believes will continue to flourish for years to come.
For now, though, it’s the Filipino community making that history as it continues to be committed to the church, the schools and the neighbourhood. “They really do deserve credit for making this area of town what it is today,” Hawkswell said.