“Don’t forget the poor; be generous to them.”
With those words, Canossian Sister Elisa Grignoli called about 30 Catholic Street Missionaries to reflect on their mission to the poor and homeless before heading out to the streets of Vancouver.
With the simplicity her order is known for, she said Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew – “Whatever you did for one of these least of these, you did for me” – need to be the guiding light for young adults as they encounter the homeless.
A sister for more than 60 years and a former nurse, Sister Grignoli emphasizes attentiveness to the needs of the poor, especially listening to them.
Recently one of Sister Grignoli’s students put that lesson into practice. The young woman saw a homeless man in her path and asked him, “What can I do for you?”
The man’s reply was, “I need a haircut.”
The woman, an RCIA candidate, attended to the man’s spoken needs by taking him for a haircut. Then she bought him a suit.
Her acts of generosity were life-changing. The man soon had a job that got him off the streets. The woman’s kindness had given him a life of dignity.
Another homeless man was asked by the CSM outreach team what he would like Jesus to do for him. He said, “my pneumonia … to get well.” They prayed for him right there. A few weeks later, the man went up to the same team on the street and told them gratefully, “Last time you prayed over me, my pneumonia was healed!” Since then, he has left the street, got cleaned up from drugs, and found a a job.
Catholic Street Missionaries, based at St. Mary’s Church in Vancouver and led by Mildred Moy, regularly serve the homeless on Lower Mainland streets.
Recognizing the need for grace to strengthen their mission through prayer and self-denial, the young adult volunteers held a 24-hour fast and prayer event. About 60 people took part on Friday, and 30 young adults stayed for the entire event until Saturday evening.
The event started at St. Mary’s with Michael Mendonca, a parishioner of Holy Family in Vancouver, speaking on the need for fasting, “which allows for self-mastery over one’s appetites, enabling self-control.”
After contemplating the message during a quiet time of Eucharistic adoration, the missionaries heard from the evening’s main speaker, Father Mark McGuckin, pastor at St. Francis de Sales in Vancouver.
Father McGuckin, who before he was a priest spent seven weeks volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, shared his experiences serving the poor, encouraged by the sisters who radiated Christ by willingly helping with so much joy.
His message to the young people was to heed Mother Teresa’s message of serving those around them, equipped with prayer.
On Saturday, the young people went to Westminster Abbey in Mission, where Father Peter Nygren prayerfully guided the group as they started the day. “Prayer is not something we do,” the Benedictine monk said, “but it is something that happens to us by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
Singing a Taizé chant, he invited the missionaries to contemplate the words of Jesus to his friends the night before he died. They were asked to stay and pray with him, not in hardship and fear but in unfulfilled desire for God’s life.
By the end of the 24 hours, missionaries spoke about how they had been moved by the message of allowing God to guide their mission and “leaning in” to the needs of the poor.
Mendonca, who started the event by speaking to the group about fasting, said the experience of praying and going without food “has helped me feel a greater solidarity with the poor and what it is to go hungry for an exaggerated time.”
The Catholic Street Missionaries meet every Sunday, visiting Vancouver’s Downtown East Side to provide the poor and homeless with material support such as water, food, and clothing, as well as spiritual support by offering to pray for their intentions and needs.
‘The forgotten on the streets need friendship’
B.C. Catholic Staff
When Mildred Moy established Catholic Street Missionaries in 2016, it was a natural extension of what she had already been doing for many years with her parish-based street ministry: offering outreach to prostituted women, the homeless, and the addicted in Vancouver’s destitute Downtown Eastside.
But the St. Mary’s parishioner in Vancouver’s working-class Renfrew-Collingwood neighbourhood wanted to do more than provide sleeping bags for those on the street. She had a desire in her heart to have spiritual companions to work with her in handing out warm clothing and praying with those on the street. She wanted to provide emotional and spiritual support to help people move off the street and start drug-free lives.
Moy, who in 2013 received from Archbishop J. Michael Miller the papal Benemerenti medal in recognition of her service to the poor, launched Catholic Street Missionaries in 2016 as an archdiocesan ministry to train and mobilize full-time street missionaries.
“Our vision is that everyone will be treated with respect and dignity,” she said. “No one, especially the weak and the poor, will be forgotten, abandoned, or marginalized.”
Missionary Nicole Frederickson is one of the missionaries who has been taking up that task. She has been working with Catholic Street Missionaries for four years and credits Moy as a role model and “big sister” to her.
“I learned to become an adult in my Catholic faith and what that takes,” she said. “Not only did I grow spiritually but I also connected with other young people with similar ambitions and mindsets.”
A spiritual formation period involved daily Mass, silent retreats, visiting, working, and discerning religious life with various sisters, and listening to educational talks from priests.
As she began her missionary work she discovered that “the forgotten on the streets need friendships, spiritual nourishment and emotional support in general.”
The missionaries would build trust and friendship with those they saw regularly, helping them get medical care and find employment. In return, they were included in the lives of the men and women they encountered. “We were invited to attend baptisms of their babies,” said Frederickson.
“We also met new faces and would listen to their life stories, hold their hand during prayer, and if they did not feel like talking we would be with them and offer them the goodies that we brought.”
Catholic Street Missionaries Society is organizing Summer Missions for young adults in July/August 2024. If you are interested, visit catholicstreetmissionaries.org.