Following the devastation of post-tropical storm Fiona, Catholics in Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia — with the support of the community — delivered a case study in what can be accomplished when faith is put into action.
Norma Blinkhorn, a parishioner of Holy Family Church and coordinator of youth ministry for the Diocese of Antigonish, lit the spark for what was to come. She noticed no town entity had stepped up to provide any support services for the people victimized by the Sept. 24 storm that swept across Canada’s Maritime provinces, downing trees, flooding some areas, knocking electricity out for days on end and, in Newfoundland, even sweeping numerous houses into the sea.
So Blinkhorn stepped in to fill the gap in her community. She spoke to her husband, Harry, to determine if anything could be done to lend a helping hand.
“Communion is communion with community,” she said.
“We knew that the Knights of Columbus were about to host a barbecue, and that food was already stored in the freezer at the parish hall. I said to my husband, ‘We have to do something. We have food here. We can’t wait for the barbecue.'”
On Sept. 26, Blinkhorn mobilized the Holy Family Knights council to cook hot dogs and hamburgers on the gas stoves the parish had at its disposal. The gas stoves proved crucial as the parish — and essentially the town of over 14,000 people at large — was without power, and remained so nine days after Fiona hit.
“When we saw the big crowds that were showing up (for food), and the overall desperation within the community, we felt, ‘Oh my God, we have to do something,'” said Blinkhorn.
She tapped into her community network to identify volunteers who could help the parish prepare at least 500 meals for the next day.
With four decades of experience serving the Northside Homemakers Service Society, including as agency director, she had contacts telling her that many home-care clients impacted by the storm were in need of food deliveries.
The parish and the service society formed a partnership: The parish volunteers prepared the food, which the NHSS officials delivered to clients in need. They also fed the men and women cleaning up the damage from Fiona.
More members in Blinkhorn’s network were asked to pitch in — and they did. On the third day, volunteers assembled to prepare salads. Parishioners also compiled treat bags to take to seniors facilities to tide residents over until more food could be delivered.
Day four, Blinkhorn purchased eggs and bread for sandwich-making. On that day, she contacted the Salvation Army to see if there were workers interested in partaking in the community initiative.
“We spoke to Theresa Antoniak, who works for the Salvation Army with her husband in Ontario, and they offered to come here to help provide lunch and dinners. I think they have provided at least 500 meals,” she said.
The Salvation Army also had one of its spiritual counselors on site to meet with anyone seeking comfort and support.
In addition to a meal, Sydney Mines residents with households afflicted by Fiona were invited to the parish hall to receive help filling out the forms to apply for natural disaster tax relief.
When local schoolchildren returned to learning Oct. 3, many did not have supplies for school lunches. The parish team stepped up to amass a host of treat bags.
Ultimately, Blinkhorn said at least 1,800 meals have been prepared and disbursed as of Oct. 3. Unhesitatingly, she said volunteers “are absolutely prepared” to keep going in the days ahead.
Holy Family’s Father Fabian Ihungebo and Deacon David Lewis are helping hands of support every step of the way. Deacon Lewis marvels at what has been accomplished.
“This is the church. We are very fortunate to have the opportunity to do what we are called to do as followers of God,” he said.
Blinkhorn said through conversation with the young people, it is clear they want the church to exemplify the Catholic faith through community action.
“They want their churches to be involved in work supporting the community. And that is what Pope Francis has called us to do.”
She said since the storm, parishioners who had maybe not volunteered in the past are providing steadfast examples of Catholic faith in action to support the mobilization effort that shows no signs of slowing down.
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Amundson is a reporter for The Catholic Register, Toronto.