Sent Out: A Story from Canada

Father Robert Assaly (centre) with Father Michael LeClerc (left) welcoming the new parishioners at the missionary partnership launch at Saint Willibrord Parish, September 2022 (Jon Eric Marababol)

“Transforming our city, by transforming parishes, to transform lives!”

— Father Michael LeClerc

Jacqueline Marie | Oct. 13, 2022

In 2016 Father Michael LeClerc, Pastor of St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish, interned at Saint Benedict Parish in Halifax, Nova Scotia, for 6 months. He was sent by Bishop Thomas Dowd to learn and discover what programs and practices could be applied within the Montreal context.

Instead, Father Michael experienced a complete transformation of his pastoral perspective.

“The big thing that happened for me was at the Easter vigil when I saw them (Saint Benedict) have 6 or 7 people being baptized that day…I called back to the secretary at the parish and asked her to look up the last time we did an adult baptism in the parish.”

Her response was “1978.” 

“My heart broke I knew we needed to repent of that.” From that moment on things changed for Father Michael and he had a renewed pastoral vision. “I had a dream of transforming my parish and hoping to make it somewhere where people couldn’t help but invite other people into that same experience.”

The new sign installed at Saint Willibrord 2022 (Jon Eric Marababol)

After the internship, Father Michael entered into coaching with DR; under his leadership, St. Ignatius of Loyola changed its trajectory from maintenance to mission. Since then, the parish has not gone through a single Easter without having adults baptized. Father Michael has built up a strong Senior Leadership Team (SLT) with a focus on the primacy of evangelization, the power of the Holy Spirit and the best of leadership. The parish is thriving.

But two weeks ago, Father Michael had 27 of his best leaders leave. Or more accurately, he sent them away to another Montreal parish, Saint Willibrord.

Saint Willibrord, Pastored by Father Robert Assaly, is in the trendy neighborhood of Verdun. With its Wellington St. ranked “Coolest Street in the World” by Time Out Magazine. It is a neighbourhood undergoing gentrification and change.

But the outlook for the Church there, is less than glossy. Father Robert states,“Saint Willibrord, at one point in its history, was the largest English speaking Catholic parish in Canada.” Now, less than 2-4% of the population attend Mass. Father Robert, along with pastoring neighbouring St. Thomas More Parish, became the Pastor of Saint Willibrord at the start of the pandemic. When Saint Willibrord reopened after COVID only 20 people came back to Mass.

Father Robert is not a priest content with maintenance, or as he states in the case of Saint Willibrord, “palliative care.” While the numbers are bleak “in Verdun, it means the harvest is plenty.” He continues, it is time to “send the workers out into the into the vineyard.”

His conviction stems from a deep personal experience of transformation. In his twenties, Father Robert was working in a stock brokerage firm and a “devoted atheist.” By secular standards he had made it in the business world. But young and a “self-made millionaire” (he chuckles and mutters ‘if there is such a thing’) he felt an ache in his soul. During an experience of “this amazing love of God” he heard a distinct call to become a priest and met with an Anglican Bishop his father knew. He quit his job and followed a new path, became an Anglican priest, married his wife Nancy and had 6 kids. Decades later his path would fork out once again.

While at McGill for grad studies he felt a call from the Holy Spirit to become Catholic. Nancy attended St. Ignatius of Loyola and volunteered as a leader with the youth before Father Mike’s time; their two youngest children were confirmed there. Father Robert was occasionally drawn there as well. Eventually, he was able to be ordained as a Roman Catholic Priest – the only married Roman Catholic priest in Quebec.

Father Robert and Father Michael are now engaged in another first for the Catholic Church in Canada: a missionary partnership.

Father Robert Assaly (Jon Eric Marababol) 

"We don't want to be life support – we want to be life giving."

The more than 2 dozen people sent from St. Ignatius two weeks ago are being commissioned to join Saint Willibrord as part of their parish vision to send people out to grow the Church in their city and beyond. With the launch of the missionary partnership the group from St. Ignatius has become regular parishioners at Saint Willibrord, joining with the faithful remnant that is there. “We don’t want to be life support – we want to be life giving,”  says Father Michael. Those that have remained at Saint Willibrord want the same thing and are equal partners with the new parishioners to make the church missional. The goal is to renew the parish and reach Verdun with the love of Jesus.

It is a risk. There is no playbook. It might all fail. Father Robert states: “it’s either going make or break the parish.” But the goal isn’t just to survive. But rather, he says that “we would have signs of fruitfulness of faith” at Saint Willibrord and “a real commitment to servant leadership.”

The 1st phase of the missional partnership was divided into three stages over the past year:

  • Spring: Discernment and prayer, with those feeling called to go from St. Ignatius expressing an interest
  • Summer: Training, discovery and prayer between the group leaving St. Ignatius and those at Saint Willibrord.
  • Fall: Sending forth of the group of 27 adults and 8 children and prayer.

The 2nd phase began 2 weeks ago with the official launch Mass. They already have an Alpha up and running and 100 people attended Mass last week.

It all leads to a vision Father Michael articulates: “Transforming our city, by transforming our parishes, to transform lives.”

In three years, Father Robert hopes Saint Willibrord will be the one to “send out 27 adults and eight kids to help transform another parish.”

Fr. Robert Assaly • Oct. 27, 1959 – March 26, 2023
On March 26, 2023, Fr. Robert Assaly went to his eternal reward following his battle with cancer. It is our honour to remember his remarkable priestly ministry in this story. Read more.

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