Cathedral continues long social history

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Very Rev. Bruce Howe has offered sanctuary to refugees in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

AMONG ITS claims to fame, the oldest church in southwestern Ontario has provided sanctuary to 19th-century slaves and 20th-century refugees, feeds hundreds of poor people and has blessed camels and earthworms.

St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Ont., was part of the underground railroad. On Aug. 11, 1855, 700 former American slaves celebrated their emancipation with a thanksgiving service at the cathedral. There is still an annual commemoration.

In 1998, St. Paul’s provided legal sanctuary to a family of Iranian refugees. Abbas Golmohamady said he was arrested and tortured in Iran for distributing anti-government pamphlets. In 1995 he was being sought again when he fled with his wife, Shahnaz Sepehrinfar, and their young son to Canada. A second son was born here.

In Canada, the Muslim family converted to Christianity ? a capital offence in Iran.

Canada’s immigration authorities, however, concluded that the Golmohamadys were not refugees and would not be persecuted if they returned to Iran.

However, the dean of Huron and rector of the cathedral, Bruce Howe, was sure their lives would be in danger in Iran. He got word to them that if they came and asked for sanctuary they would be taken in. They did. Then 30 London clergy joined Dean Howe for a press conference on the cathedral steps.

“If the police come they will have to arrest every one of us,” said the dean. “We will do all in our power to have their application heard.”

The government agreed to review the application and St. Paul’s agreed that the family would not depend on social assistance for at least three years.

Within two months the federal government reversed its decision and allowed the family to stay. Today the Golmohamadys run their own business in London and are weekly parishioners.

The cathedral also has a long tradition of feeding the hungry. In the 1920s, a famine followed by a plague hit London and all the city’s social services shut down ? all but St. Paul’s.

Today St. Paul’s spearheads a Daily Bread Program that accepts donations from restaurants, factories, grocery stores and a farmers’ market.

Some 700 families are helped each month. Director Jane Moffat says clients praise both the quality of the food and generosity.

Three days a week, eleven months a year, Grace and Alan King, along with other parishioners, serve hot lunch to about 100 people in the cathedral’s Fellowship Centre.

There is a calm, quiet atmosphere in the comfortable living room and, after lunch, a couple of dozen street people remain to play cards or read, lingering over coffee and dessert.

Once a month, the Fellowship Centre holds a birthday party complete with small gifts. At the Christmas dinner there are also presents.

“Sometimes our gift is the only one they receive,” says Mrs. King who has also attended many funerals for her Fellowship friends.

“They’re good people,” said one homeless man after the lunch. “There’s so many people hurting but they help you a lot.”

On the Sunday closest to the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the cathedral welcomes animals and blesses them using the ancient liturgy of the beloved saint.

Environmentalists have brought earthworms and a camel and llama have entered the cathedral.

Some sight-impaired people have become parishioners after having their guide dogs blessed.

Despite increased vandalism and burglary, the cathedral remains open for private prayer, the daily offices and two weekly organ concerts. St. Paul’s is renowned for its artistic fabric but the dean believes it is important that clergy get out and understand the community in which they live.

“If we isolate ourselves like a holy remnant, we will feel threatened and hide behind the beautiful stained glass and liturgy.”

Retired law professor and National Post columnist Ian Hunter says he and his wife Norah relish St. Paul’s because it is “High Church in liturgy, evangelical in outreach, orthodox in preaching and matches the Salvation Army in social action.”

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