Of the many ways to die, we would choose St. Lawrence’s last.

The year, 258. The place, Rome. The villain, the emperor himself. He ordered that all bishops, priests and deacons be put to death.

Lawrence was told to bring forward the riches of the church. Instead he hastily distributed them to the needy. This infuriated the emperor, who ordered that Lawrence be roasted alive.


St. Lawrence has been part of the North End since 1890. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

He was placed on an iron grid over slow coals. It is said that Lawrence remained defiant to the end. "Turn me over," he said to his tormentors. "I’m done on this side." He was 33.

In Canada, St. Lawrence is remembered with a mighty river. His name doesn’t grace many churches, but North End Hamilton is St. Lawrence country.

And this weekend, being the annual Feast of St. Lawrence, they will celebrate his strength.

Not the Vatican way

At the Vatican, they mark the day by bringing out a case that holds his burnt head. In Hamilton, they do it a little differently. They have lunch, with cannelloni, oven-roasted chicken and veal parmesan.

There is much to celebrate in the St. Lawrence parish this year. The church itself is reborn, with the arrival of two energetic priests from Labrador, plus black Labs TJ and Sutton.

Better yet, they have moved into the rectory beside the church, a building empty and neglected for many years.


Alissa Denham-Robinson was married in the church, and so were her parents. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

St. Lawrence, at Mary and Picton, was built in 1890, making it the city’s third oldest Catholic church, after St. Mary’s and St. Pat’s. Solid brick on the outside, heavenly on the inside. Fifteen tall windows of stained glass, eight chandeliers, two large candelabras held by angels, one massive marble altar, one mighty Casavant organ.

Old churches are struggling in the city and it’s been no different at St. Lawrence.

"There were always threats," says Alissa Denham-Robinson. "We heard the school was closing, the church was closing." She was married here. So were her parents.

The neighbourhood noticed

She’s head of the city’s Municipal Heritage Committee, so she cares about the bricks and mortar. The church stood, but the manse was a special worry. The neighbourhood saw that it remained vacant.

Then those men from afar – and their big dogs – came to town. Father Tony O’Dell and Father Jarek Pachocki are with an order called the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The two had been working in Labrador City for years, an affluent iron ore community where money seemed to be the root of many evils.

The new bishop of the Hamilton Catholic diocese, Douglas Crosby, had served in Labrador City too. He knew the strengths of Fathers Tony and Jarek and asked them to consider Hamilton.


Renovations complete, the 115-year-old rectory is ready to serve several generations more. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

"It’s so different from anything we’ve experienced," Father Tony says. "But the more we prayed, the more it seemed the right thing to do."

They’ve taken on not just St. Lawrence, but the inner-city parish of St. Pat’s too. They also serve the Barton Street jail, the Hamilton General, eight retirement homes and four schools.

Father Tony likes old buildings. He looked inside the old St. Lawrence rectory and saw home. Father Jarek wasn’t so sure. The 115-year-old house didn’t even have a working bathroom. The windows were leaking, the pipes were iron, the wiring was ancient. The diocese had thought about knocking it down.

Much has been saved

In six months of renovations, Father Jarek stayed away. He let Father Tony oversee the renos. "We know our own gifts and talents," he explains.

And now it is done. Most of the wood trim has been saved, and many of the hardwood floors too. There are lights on again in the rectory and the people have noticed.


Father Jarek likes fish, and that blue one in the bowl is named after the church's saint. Meet Larry. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

The job now is to fill that church next door. Average age of the congregation is in the 60s and the goal is to bring that down. The fathers visit schools, talk to the community. Baptisms and weddings are up. A website is coming.

A good crowd is guaranteed this Sunday for the St. Lawrence Feast Day Festival. All are welcome to attend the mass at 10.30 a.m. Then, before the sold-out banquet in the parish hall, there will be a procession out onto the lawn between the church and the rectory.

There all will admire the newly-restored statue of St. Lawrence, which includes a depiction in stone of the very grid on which he met his maker. Barbarous events two millennia ago have been replaced by lunch and love on a Sunday afternoon.


Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.