Friday, January 13, 2017

Catholic church in Neepawa bursting at the seams due to immigration

Neepawa church standing roomIf you're planning to attend St. Dominic's Roman Catholic Church in Neepawa, Man., on any given Sunday of the year, plan to arrive early or you might have to stand. 

"It's inspiring to see," Father Mark Filips told CBC News after mass on Sunday. "Young people, old people, everybody in between coming together in such great numbers." 

Average attendance for a Sunday mass at the church, in the town about 170 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, is between 250 and 300 people, according to Filips.

But it's not just the number of people filling the seats that is gaining attention, it's also about who is coming. 

Filipino immigrants boost congregation 

This past Sunday, many of the seats in the church's basement, where services are held while the main sanctuary is undergoing renovations, were filled with Filipino immigrants.

Neepawa's population has swelled with immigrants, mainly from the Philippines, who have come in recent years to work at the town's pork processing plant. 

As a result, other industries and services in the town, which had a population of about 3,500 in 2011, are also needing new workers. 

Myla Ignacio, her husband Ronald and their two boys were among those in attendance.

"It is just like home," she said after Sunday's service. "That sense of belonging-ness is there." 

Ignacio has been attending the church with her husband since she and the boys arrived in Neepawa in 2013. Ronald arrived in 2011. She said the Catholic church is the most attended in the Philippines and people who immigrate to Canada tend to keep their faith.  

"It's a wonderful feeling as a priest," Filips said of leading a service in front of a full congregation.

Church sees marked increase in growth

A number of people had to stand in the back and in the hallways to watch Sunday's service at St. Dominic's Roman Catholic Church in Neepawa, Man. 

Filips said his church has seen a marked increase in growth over the past five years since the immigrants started arriving. Other churches have seen increases in their congregations as well, but not as much as the town's Catholic church has grown. 

"I guess it would be ... six or so years ago, the numbers here were really really low," he said. "The church just came back."
"I think it inspires people who haven't been going to church for a while to come back on board," Filips added.

It's also lead to the incorporation of more Filipino elements into the weekly services. 

Filips, who referred to Neepawa as "Little Manila on the Prairies" during Sunday's service, said the church has a Filipino choir and recently hosted a Filipino festival as a fundraiser for the church's renovations. Ignacio's sons also serve as alter servers. 

Neepawa's trend not unique 
Father Mark Filips says the church as seen marked growth in the past five years. Sunday's mass averages 250-300 people weekly. 

The growth of Neepawa's Catholic church isn't unique. It's part of a rare growth trend in the church across Canada at a time when other denominations are experiencing steady attendance or even declines as the population ages.  

Reginald Bibby is co-author of Canada's Catholics: Vitality and Hope in a New Era and is also the board of governors research chair in sociology at the University of Lethbridge. 

He said Catholicism, while not a perfect growth story, has been the big player in terms of numbers in Canada for the past several years, according to his research. 

Bibby said the number of people who consider themselves Catholic has remained "remarkably stable" compared to other religions and isn't showing signs of slowing down. 

"Their numbers have been incredibly boosted by immigration," he said. "The number arriving as Roman Catholics [over the past 10 years] was almost half a million." 

St. Dominic's Roman Catholic Church is located in Neepawa, where the population has swelled in recent years by immigrants coming to work at the town's pork processing plant. 

Other groups that are benefiting from immigration include Evangelicals, Sikhs and Muslims. 

'Immigration pipeline' important

Bibby said the "immigration pipeline" has now become the most important factor in the growth of church populations in Canada. 

"The harsh reality is they've got a lot of people dying and they're not replacing them through birth," he said, adding that the number of people attending Anglican, United and Lutheran churches are falling.

"Unless they can experience some dramatic immigration or a spike in birth rates ... they're just not going to be growing." 

Bibby said Statistics Canada data from 2008-09 has shown most immigrants are settling in Ontario and Quebec, where the Catholic church is seeing the most growth among the provinces. 

Atlantic Canada and the territories had the lowest number of new immigrants.

Back in Neepawa, Iganco said she's blessed to attend church with so many different families. 

"Even Father Mark would say he's so blessed," she said. 

"We're a country of many different denominations," Filips said.

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