Immigrants fill the pews: Calgary churches enjoy resurgence thanks to newcomers

‘Immigration’s just a phenomenally important source as far as the vitality of religion in Canada’

By Judy Aldous, CBC News Posted: Oct 04, 2016 2:00 AM MT Last Updated: Oct 04, 2016 2:00 AM MT

Father Ephrem Kardouh serves communion to a young girl at St. Basil's Melkite Greek Catholic Church. A majority of his congregation are immigrants from the Middle East.

Father Ephrem Kardouh serves communion to a young girl at St. Basil’s Melkite Greek Catholic Church. A majority of his congregation are immigrants from the Middle East. (Judy Aldous/CBC)


Father Ephrem swings a pot of burning incense and calls to his congregation in Arabic.

They respond with chants they sing every Sunday, chants that people from this sect of the Catholic Church have used for 2,000 years.

It’s an ancient tradition, today being performed in a southwest Calgary church. The pews are mostly filled — not bad for a church that didn’t even exist a year and a half ago.

Immigration keeping churches alive

Father Ephrem  — Kardouh is his last name, though no one seems to bother with it — is a priest in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. These are the Christians from the Middle East.

He was sent to Calgary when the Canadian government announced it would open its door to 25,000 Syrian refugees, many of whom are Christian.

“We used to go [to the airport] almost on daily basis, sometimes we used to go twice a day, to greet the people, to welcome them to tell them here they are welcome and they are safe.”

Over the past 18 months, Father Ephrem says his congregation went from about 20 faithful to 600.

This is an unexpected by-product of immigration. After years of declining attendance, churches are filling up again.

Religious schism

A new survey of Canadian values and identity conducted by the Angus Reid Institute (ARI) in partnership with CBC shows a growing schism in attitudes towards religion.

A majority of those surveyed say religion does not play a big role in their day-to-day lives, says Shachi Kurl, executive director of ARI.

But if you tease out the immigrants from within the survey sample, you get a different story.

“Newcomer communities are the ones filling churches again. They are the ones filling mosques and temples and really bringing a sense of religious communion back to Canada.”

Father Ephrem Kardouh, priest at St. Basil's Melkite Greek Catholic Church

Father Ephrem Kardouh of St. Basil’s Melkite Greek Catholic Church has seen his congregation grow from 20 to 600 faithful since Canada opened its doors to Syrian refugees. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

Most newcomers say religion isn’t just important in their day to day lives — they want more of it in the public sphere.

“Religion is who we are,” says Father Ephrem.

“In the West, you speak about a person separate from their religion. In the Middle East, religion is who we are above everything else.”

Filipino phenomenon

In an opposite corner of Calgary, another congregation of new Canadians is keeping their faith — and their church — alive.

Father Malcolm D’Souza with St Mark’s Church in northeast Calgary says, when he arrived in Calgary in 2010, his congregation was very small.

Then the church started offering a twice-a-month service in the Filipino language — mostly to make the temporary foreign workers from the Philippines feel at home — and the attendance numbers exploded.

D’Souza says the church regularly gets 800 people for noon mass and 700 for the 6 p.m. service.

D’Souza, who is originally from India and does not speak Filipino himself, says those special services have stopped but the Filipino church-goers have stayed.

Not everyone benefits

Reginald Bibby, who has spent years examining the role of religion in Canadian life as a sociologist at the University of Lethbridge, says this trend is replicated in cities across Canada.

Baitun Nur Mosque

Friday afternoon prayers in the ‘men’s side’ at the Baitun Nur Mosque in northeast Calgary. Up to 1,500 people regularly show up for this service, half of whom are new to Canada. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

“Immigration’s just a phenomenally important source as far as the vitality of religion in Canada,” he said.

If the influence of immigration gets overlooked, Bibby says that’s because not all churches are benefiting.

Roman Catholic and evangelical Christian churches, as well as mosques, are seeing big growth from immigration. But United and Anglican Churches are not.

Facing East in the West

When the call to prayer rings out through the Baitun Nur Mosque at 1 p.m. every Friday afternoon in northeast Calgary, a congregation the size of a small Alberta town starts to arrive.

By 2 p.m., of the 1,500 or so people kneeling for prayers, about half were born outside Canada, primarily in Pakistan.

Majeed Ahmad Tariq, a prominent member of the mosque and president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Calgary, says most of the growth in their congregation comes through immigration.

“Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world,” says Tariq.

Can the devotion last?

Father Ephrem says many Syrian refugees are relieved to arrive in Canada, feeling they have come to a “Christian country.” It’s a notion he has to correct.

“We are secular countries. Huge difference,” he acknowledges after his 90-minute service is over.

The secularism brings challenges. The early devotion fades with time.

“We believe that our faith will continue, as it has for 2,000 years. The only thing maybe is the level of devotion. We can maintain that, but it is difficult.”


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