If you want to get a sanctuary seat for mass at St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church, you better come early.
Twenty minutes before the start of last Saturday's evening mass, the church was half-full. By start time, the sanctuary and three overflow rooms were packed. And not just with older people -- there were lots of youth, children and entire families.
It's like that for four out of the five masses held each weekend at the northwest Winnipeg church on Keewatin Street; the only service that isn't completely full is Sunday mornings at 8:30.
Some might be. After all, everyone knows Canada is becoming more secular and attendance at worship services is declining in many denominations. Plus, the Roman Catholic Church has had a lot of bad press lately. But that hasn't affected attendance at St. Peter's.
The reason? Immigration. In the case of St. Peter's, it's immigrants from the Philippines. Today they make up about 85 per cent of the congregation.
One of those immigrants is Alan Agpalza, a member of the parish pastoral council. He came to Canada 30 years ago.
"We have a deep faith in God," Agpalza says, explaining why so many from the Filipino community are avid church-goers. "It's part of our tradition."
Paul Ullrich has been attending St. Peter's since 1988. During that time, he's seen the church change from about half-and-half Caucasian and Filipino to predominantly Filipino.
"In the early days, the two groups didn't mix as much," says Ullrich, one of the church's eucharistic ministers and a lector. But now "the walls have come down. We're a pretty homogenous congregation."
Both Ullrich and Agpalza are quick to credit Msgr. Enrique Samson Jr., the church's pastor, for St. Peter's success.
"His leadership and support for the congregation has been very important," Agpalza says. "He's made a big difference in the parish."
What's happening at St. Peter's is being replicated at other churches in the archdiocese of Winnipeg.
"Filipino immigration has been an enormous benefit to the archdiocese of Winnipeg," says Archbishop James Weisgerber. "We have received thousands of families over the last 40 years and more. They are a vital part of the church community."
For Weisgerber, the Catholic Church in Winnipeg "would be very different without our Filipino sisters and brothers. They bring many new and important cultural expressions of the faith. They share them with the rest of the community, and in turn receive different gifts and experiences from the larger community. Both groups are enriched."
St. Peter's isn't the only church impacted by immigration from the Philippines; there are Filipinos in almost all the parishes in Winnipeg -- in churches like St. Peter's, St. Patrick's, St. Edward the Confessor, St. Anthony's and St. Joseph's, along with a large group at St. Mary's Cathedral.
"Filipinos have become involved in a number of ethnic parishes, where together with the original ethnic group, they permit the survival and flourishing of the parish," Weisgerber says.
He notes St. Joseph's, originally German, is now German-Filipino, and St. Anthony's, originally Hungarian, is now Hungarian-Filipino. Meanwhile, Immaculate Conception, which once served the Portuguese community, and St. John Cantius, which was predominantly Polish, both now also have sizable numbers of Filipino members.
The impact of Filipino immigration and newcomers from other Asian countries isn't just being felt in Winnipeg; it is evident in Roman Catholic churches across Canada.
"The Catholic Church in Canada is growing through Asian people," says archdiocese of Toronto Bishop Vincent Nguyen, Canada's first bishop of Asian descent, in an interview last year.
His comment was echoed by Rev. Terence Fay, author of New Faces of Canadian Catholics: The Asians.
"The arrival of new Canadians is a future reality that is happening in our day," Fay says. "Catholics from all continents continue to arrive in Canada and enrich our church."
But these new arrivals aren't just filling pews; they're also providing the church with leaders.
"It is Asian seminarians, along with African and South American, that are making differences in Canadian seminaries," Fay says. "It is the Asians that are bolstering the number of clergy in the major Canadian cities."
The result is a diverse and outward-looking church, he says.
"Asian Catholics will help us shed our parochialism to become truly the international church we profess to be," he adds.
One person who has studied the effect of immigration on the Roman Catholic Church in Canada is University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby.
At a time when mainline Protestant denominations have seen declining numbers, immigration from Asia means the percentage of Canadians identifying with the Roman Catholic church has stayed "remarkably steady" at about 44 per cent, he says.
"Immigration is a wonderful pipeline" for the church, he says.
But what happens if immigration slows? Will the children of immigrants continue to go to church? After all, the forces of secularism are strong, as is the pressure on Canadian youth to abandon religion -- as other denominations have discovered. How can the church keep them coming?
It's a serious matter; Bibby's own surveys show while 75 per cent of Catholics born outside of Manitoba are regular attenders, only 29 per cent of Canadian-born Catholics in the province attend mass more than once a month. Nationally, that figure is 58 per cent versus 27 per cent.
For Bibby, the answer is for the church to help Catholics "find vitality" in church life.
"They can't depend on tradition and sentimentality," he says. "They need to offer ministries that are meaningful and worthwhile, especially for families, along with music that resonates and has meaning for people."
But maybe things will be fine for the Catholic Church in Winnipeg because of Filipinos; according to Weisgerber, people from that community attend and support Catholic schools more strongly than any other ethnic group, while each Filipino parish has a strong and well-attended catechetical program for youth.
That seems to be the case in Agpalza's family; each of his four children was baptized at St. Peter's, and all still attend church -- as do their children.
What's the secret?
"We have a deep faith as a family," he says. "And we make sure to teach our children that going to church is very important."