Among the 65 visitors who signed up to tour St. Patrick’s Church on June 17 during the annual Car Free Day on Main Street was a well-dressed young man carrying a backpack. “I’m looking for a church that is the right fit,” he said.

Giving his name only as Tony, the man explained that he grew up attending “a few different churches, on and off.” He eventually drifted away from practising any faith.

As an adult he became an entrepreneur, got married, and started a family. Inspired by some of his business mentors, he began to feel the need to pay attention to his spiritual life in order to be a good husband and father. So when he saw that members of St. Patrick’s were offering tours, he signed up. And as parishioner Gilda Penfold guided visitors through the church, he hung on her every word.

At the end of the tour, Tony learned about the sacrament of reconciliation. Though he could not participate in the sacrament, his face lit up when he was offered a chance to talk to a priest about his questions related to faith – an opportunity he readily seized.

Nearly half a million people attend Vancouver’s Car Free Day street festivals. Yet when Father James Hughes arrived at the parish six years ago and learned about Car Free Day – which blocks off all vehicular traffic on Main St. from Broadway to 30th Ave. – he also learned that parishioners never realized they should have a presence at the festival.

That year, Car Free Day coincided with the World Cup soccer tournament, so Father Hughes dragged a television onto Main St., juggled a soccer ball, and invited people to play street soccer. The parish choir moved its rehearsal out to the street.

Parishioners quickly took the lead planning parish events for Car Free Day. Various parish groups now offer musical entertainment, while another group offers church tours. Father Hughes, other clergy, and seminarians take turns sitting at a table being available to chat with anyone.

Father Hughes welcomes conversation at his parish's booth on Car-Free Day. (Alicia Ambrosio photo)

Father Hughes said, “More times than not, people want to engage about their personal life.” Being available to engage in those types of conversation is exactly what a parish priest is called to do.

“Parish doesn’t mean those who go to church on Sunday, it means the [geographical] boundaries. A parishioner is ... all people who live within those parish boundaries,” he said.

Father Hughes said, “We’ve not been conditioned to put our faith out there.”  Noting that evangelization is all about being visible, he advised, “Look like you’re having fun, be normal. It draws people. They come to us.”

While some people have been connected to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) or Alpha program at St. Patrick’s because of Car Free Day, Father Hughes warns the goal is not instant conversions. “To expect [a person] in RCIA in September is unrealistic.” Instead, he said, being present to the community is a chance to “plant the seed.”

Not every parish is located on the path of an annual street festival, but “every parish has a ‘main street’ in its proximity,” he said; and every parish can think of “creative ways to be inviting and have a presence” to the community in its parish boundaries.

Passersby take photos with seminarian Shawn Chessell dressed as St. Patrick. (Photo submitted)

This ministry of presence also teaches seminarians that their primary duty as priests is to reach people. “It helps them understand what a diocesan priest is called to be,” he said, explaining that, while diocesan priests are busy, if they’re too busy to connect with people and be an evangelizing presence, then they’re too busy.