Settled by the Sto:lo people about 9,000 years ago, Chilliwack, the third oldest municipality in northern British Columbia, was one of the missions that strapping Father Joseph Swoboda visited as part of his ministry in the late 1950s. Now 86 and retired from active ministry in the Archdiocese of Vancouver, Fr. Swoboda reminisces about how the hardships of those early years in the Coast missions prompted him to give back to and support the Canadian missions he once served.
"I used to get on board the steamboat that brought supply goods to Chilliwack," Fr. Swoboda continues, "There was no other way I could get to the missions along the Fraser River." (According to historians, gold had been found in the Fraser River canyon area in the 1850s and gold miners had found their way to the goldfields.) As part of his assignment, Fr. Swoboda took the steamship to visit Alert Bay which stretches between the mainland and Vancouver Island. In the winter, he flew over to Port Alice and Ocean Falls to serve the spiritual needs of the native and non-native people who worked in the shipping port and pulp mills.
"There were no mission churches then," says Fr. Swoboda. "I celebrated Mass in people's homes or in small halls we rented from the schools." The lack of facilities for liturgy and other Church celebrations was not uncommon, adds Fr. Swoboda, but the local people made up for it by opening their homes to visiting missionaries. "They took good care of us." In return for their hospitality half a century ago, Fr. Swoboda had made it his life's mission to give back by giving charitable gift loans to Catholic Missions In Canada. That money, when invested, earns interest which Catholic Missions In Canada uses to support missions in need of a roof or repair.
Fr. Swoboda was born in Spirit River, Northern Alberta, in 1920. His parents, Stephen John and Alice Margaret, moved to the Fraser Valley in the early 1920s, and Fr. Swoboda completed his high school studies in Abbotsford.
He then attended the University of British Columbia in the faculty of science in the hopes of becoming a teacher. He was helped and encouraged by his mother who had taught school successfully in Alberta.
However, when the Second World War broke out, Fr. Swoboda joined the Canadian Officers' Training Corps. At the close of the war in 1945, Fr. Swoboda was encouraged by his younger brother, Father Francis, an Oblate missionary now deceased, to consider becoming a priest and possibly serving as an army chaplain.
Fr. Swoboda began his studies for the priesthood at the Seminary of Christ the King then run by the Benedictine Fathers in Burnaby, B.C. He received his first year of theology at Mount Angel Seminary with the Benedictines in Oregon, and completed his theological studies with the Oblate Fathers at St. Paul University Seminary in Ottawa. He was ordained on June 4, 1955, by the late Archbishop Martin M. Johnson, Coadjutor of Vancouver. Being ordained at age 35, Fr. Swoboda's was considered a late vocation.
The new priest's first assignment was serving in Holy Rosary Cathedral in Vancouver for nearly two years. Then he was assigned to the Coast Missions which included mission churches at Alert Bay and Port Alice on northern Vancouver Island. In one particular visit to Namu mission in the winter of 1957, a violent windstorm spin Fr. Swoboda's plane to a near-mishap. "I thought the pilot and I would never come out of it alive, but we did," he recounts. The squall let up, and that allowed the pilot to make a forced landing on water.
After that, Fr. Swoboda served in the Vancouver area in several parishes (including St. Jude's and St. John the Apostle) and hospitals (including Pearson General and Mount St. Joseph).
He has also served parishes in several areas of the archdiocese, including churches and missions in Chilliwack (St. Mary's), Surrey (Our Lady of Good Counsel), Burnaby (St. Francis de Sales), Powell River (Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary), Maple Ridge (St. Patrick's), Abbotsford (St. Ann's), and Port Moody (St. Joseph's).
"I always had a heart for the men and women serving in the missions," says Fr. Swoboda. Aside from giving charitable gift loans, he has also taken out annuities to help the missions. "I feel I've been blessed and need to return those blessings so that others may also grow in their faith."
"I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He judged me faithful and appointed me to His service." 1 Tim. 1:12 Prayer on Fr. Sowoboda's 50th anniversary of ordination, June 4, 2005.