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100 years for friendly Stella

Community ministry a comforting place for North End

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It may be the former workplace of notable Manitoba politicians, and a heritage building marked by a bronze plaque, but for generations of North End residents, Stella Mission is simply a friendly place to go.

"It's for people like me," says Kathleen Bremner of the mandate of North End Stella Community Ministry, often referred to simply as Stella, which celebrates its 100th anniversary next weekend. "I had lots of kids and no help. If I needed a break, I could drop them off."

Now a regular volunteer in the ground-level office of the century-old, three-storey brick structure which once housed a gymnasium and a swimming pool, Bremner began using the ministry's daycare services for her two toddlers 10 years ago while pregnant with her third son.

"At first when I heard it was a church ministry I thought they were going to convert me," she says of her initial impressions. "It's not like that. I find it is open and welcoming of whatever you choose to do."

All People's Mission was always intended to be a welcoming place, established by the Methodist Church at the end of the 19th century first on Sutherland Avenue, and in 1909 on Stella Avenue, to help immigrants and poor people who lived in the North End. J.S. Woodsworth, then a Methodist minister, later to become a member of Parliament and leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, was an early superintendent of All People's Mission. His small office at the top corner of the building, now used for storing kitchen supplies, gave him a bird's-eye view of the activity at Stella, and the needs in the neighbourhood.

"I think one of the more interesting aspects was that the Methodist Church and later the United Church of Canada were providing services the government didn't provide," says Rev. Doug Martindale, a United Church minister and now the NDP MLA for Burrows who worked at Stella from 1980 to 1990. "One of the constants is we're still serving the community, but we're finding new ways to do it."

One of those new ways is offering computer services and telephone access to North Enders, in the same space where generations past splashed in the only public pool in the neighbourhood. The basement gymnasium, once home to championship basketball teams despite being smaller than regulation size, is transformed annually into a free tax preparation centre, where trained volunteers fill out income tax forms for 900 low-income area residents.

"For me, it's (Stella) is very important," says Powers Street resident Bernie Janz, who visits daily to make telephone calls and check his email at one of the ministry's three public-use computers. "I don't have a computer, and (I come here) just to get out of the house and go somewhere."

Hundreds of folks like Janz visit each month, stopping by to drop off their children at the brightly outfitted second-floor daycare, taking part in the weekly children's activities, community meals, the Sunday morning worship circle, getting emergency food, or just for a cup of coffee and a chat.

"I think the strength (of Stella) is that we invite the community here, no matter who they are, we welcome them," says cultural worker Una Truscott, a Cree woman originally from Fisher River. "Whatever background they have, we try to get to know them."

Getting to know the people in the neighbourhood also means respecting their spiritual roots, says community minister Adel Compton, whether Christian or traditional aboriginal teachings. Each Sunday worship circle begins with an aboriginal smudge ceremony, and incorporates both Christian and aboriginal teachings in informal ways, she says.

"We are about how we can respect both paths and be supportive and be helpful in how they can live," says Compton. "We're about creating new conversations of respect."

That model for ministry is unique to Stella, but it can collide with other views of Christian mission, admits board chairperson Glenn Morison, especially when it come to attracting new partners for the ministry. Stella Mission's $220,000 annual budget is largely funded now by the United Church of Canada, which also owns and maintains the building at 470 Stella Ave.

"When we go looking for ecumenical partners, it is hard to find (them) because some ecumenical missions aren't interested in being part of a ministry that begins with a smudge (ceremony)," says Morison, a United Church minister who works as a chaplain at the Winnipeg Remand Centre. "It's a hard thing, because not all Christian churches are willing to enter into this vulnerable dialogue."

After a century of opening its doors to the people of the North End, the building at Powers and Stella is showing its age. Despite the well-trod carpet, narrow winding hallways and temperamental elevator, the building is still what it was designed to be -- a comfortable and welcoming place in the North End.

"It's just a very relaxed place to be, whereas some of the bigger community organizations, they're good, but they're not as personal," says Bremner.

brenda@suderman.com

Come and visit

Doors are open. Visit the 100-year-old brick building at the corner of Powers and Stella during an open house, 2 to 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13, which includes a performance by the Phil McKenzie Pow Wow group, an archival display and a traditional feast.

Beyond the Social Gospel. Lorne Calvert, United Church minister and former NDP Saskatchewan premier speaks at 10 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 14 at Convocation Hall, University of Winnipeg.

Travel back in time. Hear the stories of years past with Doug Martindale, former community worker at Stella, 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15, 470 Stella Ave.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 7, 2009 H13

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