For Elise Maesa, taking three buses to attend the church where she feels most comfortable is a blessing in disguise.
The congregant at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Parish on Bathurst Street near Glenclairn Avenue says it’s justifiable in order to pray with her congregation.
“It’s not my favourite church, it’s my congregation,” she explains. “If I’m late, I can go to a closer church to make mass, but I still make the effort to come here even if it takes three buses.
“It’s worth it.”
Maesa is one of hundreds of Filipinos who are part of the Filipino Catholic Mission at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Parish — which recently celebrated its 60th anniversary.
Over that time, the parish has seen many significant changes. The original parish was established in 1947 when the Archdiocese of Toronto, under the leadership of Cardinal James McGuigan, decided the area on Bathurst Street near Eglinton Avenue West needed a Catholic presence.
The building was erected in 1951 in what was at the time the Village of Forest Hill. From 1950–1995 the church was under the administration of the Redemptorist Fathers. It was then transferred to the Archdiocese of Toronto, then to the Missionaries of Africa for five years, and finally back to the Archdiocese.
Today, the church is home to both the original parish as well as the Filipino Catholic Mission. Father Bienvenido Ebcas Jr. said the congregation has quadrupled in recent years, to the point that Filipinos comprise about 80–85 percent of the parish.
“The community has changed a lot in terms of the demographics because of immigration,” he said. “A lot of Filipino families have migrated.”
He said most Filipino Torontonians previously attended services in the Flemingdon Park area. But gradually the area of North Toronto off Bathurst Street became home to a large Filipino Catholic community.
“In this neighbourhood we have caregivers, we have doctors, we have professionals, we have Filipino business establishments,” he said. “This was the most logical area for us to congregate on the weekends.”
And while the congregation itself may have changed dramatically, one thing remains constant: the church is still seen as a home and sanctuary for the nearby community.
“If I go to some other church, I feel like I’m different,” said congregant Jun Aguirre, who has been attending Our Lady of the Assumption for 29 years. “Almost everybody here that comes, I know.”
Maesa said the tightly knit Filipino community keeps her coming back, despite the fact that she has Catholic churches closer to her residence.
“We feel back home,” she said. “I think that’s part of the essence of this church.”
Ebcas estimated the church has grown to between 4,000 and 6,000 members, a stark contrast to other churches in Toronto that have closed due to shrinking congregations.
“The most significant thing is the growth of the congregation,” Ebcas said.
“Before, the capacity of the church was more than the number of congregants. Now it’s the other way around.”
In order to accommodate the growing parish, the church has added a second mass at 7:15 p.m. on Sundays.
“At first it was only 50 people attending,” said congregant Derek D’Souza. “Now the church almost fills up.”
Aguirre said he would continue to attend services at the church as long as the community is there with him.
“If you go to some other church, all you know is Him,” he said while pointing to the sky. “And I don’t want that.”
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