Canada Day, July 1, is often a time to celebrate immigration, as newcomers to this country take their citizenship oaths, accompanied by red serge Mounties and Maple Leaf flags.
This year, the descendants of one immigrant couple marked the 70th anniversary of their ancestors’ arrival in Canada, and the flourishing of a strong, Catholic family who number in the dozens and have retained their family, parish, and school ties to this day.
The story begins after the Second World War, when Josef and Karolina Kobetitsch, along with their three young children, were forced to leave Austria because of hard economic times. It was 1949, and like many others, they were still feeling the effects of the war, including great hunger and too little to eat.
It reached the point where Josef had to raid the fields of nearby farms, looking for a few potatoes to feed his family. In doing so he was risking his life, since farmers were using firearms to protect their crops, shooting thieves on sight.
After numerous harrowing experiences in displaced persons camps after the war, Josef and Karolina Kobetitsch left Austria along with their three young children, Ida, 10; Joseph, 8; and Erna, 6. They sailed on the passenger liner the RMS Scythia – fare approximately $900 – arriving in Quebec City on June 21, 1949.
They then took a five-day train ride to Vancouver, where they settled just a couple of blocks away from St. Patrick’s Church on West 12th Avenue. Although the family of five arrived speaking no English, the children quickly picked up the language at school and became translators for their parents until they could get by with their broken English.
It was at St. Patrick’s that they met Msgr. Louis Forget, 45 years the pastor. The children attended St. Patrick’s Elementary, with Msgr. Forget waiving their tuition due to the family’s tight economic circumstances.
Joe Kobetitsch became an altar boy and said he regarded Msgr. Forget as a saint due to the kindness he showed so many people. Of the countless incidents he could relate, Joe recalled one time when he and some other altar boys were asked to serve at a funeral at the church. Afterward, Msgr. Forget treated them to a drive around town in his car, overlooking the fact they were supposed to return to school. Needless to say, the nuns who taught at the school were less than pleased.
Years later, a young priest, Father (later Archbishop) James Carney, arrived at the parish and, as Jesus commanded in Matthew’s Gospel, welcomed the little children, visiting with them during recess and lunch.
As time went on, all the children married and the Kobetitsch family gradually moved into St. Andrew’s Parish near 53rd Avenue and Main Street. The three children had their own children, and to this day all remain active members of the parish. Ida, Erna, and Joseph’s wife Elaine have been involved members of the Catholic Women’s League, working and participating in fundraisers and activities as well as the parent teacher association. Joseph is an active member of Knights of Columbus Vancouver Council 1081.
Family celebrations remain a key component of life for the multi-generation family, who now number nearly 40 members. Every Sunday for the past 50 years, a family brunch takes place after Sunday Mass, with various households hosting on a rotating basis. Due to work and other obligations, they don’t always get everyone, but it’s always a pleasant zoo!
On June 21, at the Deck restaurant in Richmond, the family came together for a celebration of seven decades in Canada.
Ida, Joseph, and Erna, along with their spouses, Siegmund, Elaine, and Clemens, raised a huge clan of cousins who grew up like brothers and sisters, seeing each other almost every day, attending the same classes in the same schools, worshipping together at Sunday Mass, and since 1964, gathering for Sunday brunch.
Today, Ida, 80, Joseph, 78, and Erna, 76, remain the glue of the family. As they celebrate their 70 years in this beautiful country of Canada, they are thankful for the good life and good fortune God has given them. Theirs is the kind of positive immigration story we need to hear more of, especially at this time when we hear of so many people trying to come to Canada to start a new and better life.
Mike Steffen is a parishioner at Holy Cross Church in Crescent Beach. His mother is Erna (Kobetitsch) Steffen.
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