The church bells at San Isidore Catholic Church in Vita were heard ringing once again last week Saturday afternoon, and the pews were filled with parishioners, because of one member of the Filipino community in Steinbach.

Edwin Sonsona is the Chapter Head of Missionary Families of Christ in Steinbach, which is a Catholic organization based out of the Christ our Saviour Church on Loewen Blvd.  He arrived in Canada from the Philippines in 2006 and has been supporting Filippino families ever since.

Sonsona tells the story of how the Vita Catholic Church building came to open its doors to services after being closed in 2011.

“So, every Epiphany, this year on January 6, me and my wife visit the Archbishop in his office in Winnipeg. We had a coffee and just visited.”

“Then as we were visiting, I just said, “Your Grace, by the way, do we have church in Vita?” And he said, “Oh, yeah, we do, but it's, oh, sorry, it's closed.”

And I asked, “Oh, how long?” He said, “Oh, it's been a while.”

Sonsona remembers being told that the Vita Catholic church had closed its doors 13 years ago because of a dwindling congregation. 

But hearing the Archbishop's words “It’s closed” didn’t stop Sonsona from asking, “Oh, OK, because, like, you know what, your Grace, I'm just asking that, because we have so many Filipinos that live in Vita. And they are coming to our church in Steinbach, and now, after the pandemic, I haven't seen them anymore. So, if it’s possible, can we open it again?”

Not much was talked about after Sonsona’s inquiry about the Vita church building, and he was left wondering what the next step could be to help Catholic parishioners living in the Vita area.

Then Sonsona says, he received an email from the Priest at the Parish in St. Malo, Father Paul Nguyen, who said they had received permission to open the church in Vita.

Immediately after reading the message, he went to St. Malo where Fr. Nguyen decided on Saturday February 17, as the date for the first service in the Vita church, to which Sonsona replied,

“Let's do it! So that's how it started.”

On receiving the keys to the building, Sonsona was one of the first people inside, he notes, “The building is small, like for about 60 people, with lots of room to improve.”

Because the building had been vacant for such a long time, the first thing they did was a thorough cleaning of the facility. “The furnace ducts, the walls, the windows, everything was cleaned.”

“And then I told Father Paul, it’s ready to go. And that Saturday (February 17), our church was, wow, filled up. Some people were standing, and so I brought them some chairs.”

Sonsona says, right before the service began, “I rang the bell. It was so touching, because I remembered when I was in elementary and high school, I always rang the bell at church; at 9:00 in the morning. 12 noon, 3:00 PM and 6:00 PM. So now, I rang the bell at this church. Those who heard said hopefully people in this area hear the bell sounds again.”

Sonsona says, everyone is invited to their Saturday services, which start at 5pm.

He notes the church building and land belongs to the St. Boniface Diocese and the community of Vita. He says all monies taken in through donations or collection will go towards the church and stay in Vita.

He adds one of the first things they plan on adding is a bathroom. Right now, they are renting a port-a-potty for the Saturday services.

Father Paul Nguyen surrounded by members of the Vita Filipino community - Edwin Sonsona (standing far right)Father Paul Nguyen surrounded by members of the Vita Filipino community - Edwin Sonsona (standing far right)

Meanwhile, Audrey Cua who, along with ten families all part of the Filipino community in Vita, is very excited about the opening of the Vita Catholic Church. Cua says prior to this, they would drive 45 minutes one way to the Steinbach Catholic Church for Sunday Mass.

Cua knew of Sonson's request to the Archbishop to open the Vita church, but she had her doubts. "At the back of my mind, I was thinking it's going to be a long shot because it's a small community and so, who knows, right? But then after two-weeks he messaged me and told me, "Audrey, the first Mass will be on February 17."

Cua says, when she heard the news, she was in shock.

"I didn't expect it that it was going to be that fast. And like, oh, wow, thank you Lord!  Now we don't need to travel anymore, plus some of the Filipinos here are newcomers so they don't have means of transportation yet, but they want to go to the church, but they don't have means of transportation. So, it's a like a big blessing that the church is just in town."

Cua says their first service in Vita last weekend was, "Mesmerizing. It was joyous. People came far away, like a family from St Adolphe. They said that they had traveled to Vita because she said her great, great grandfather was the one who helped build the church. It was amazing to hear stories of people that when they were kids, they went there for the service, for the mass. I liked hearing those stories."

Cua notes that while cleaning the building they found attendance logs prior to 2011 with names of people who had stopped in Vita to attend a service, some from as far away as Ontario, which she says gives her hope.

Going forward, Cua says they will take it one weekend service at a time. There is much to plan and organize, but she is confident they will have help from the community in Vita. She also puts out an invitation to the public to join them for Mass.

"I'm inviting everybody to please join us because we want to have this one place that we can go to and gather to and just hear the words of the Lord Jesus Christ. So, it will be very, very pleasant if it will stay open, not just for now, but of course for the future, for the kids."