November 29th, 2021

‘Loonie priest’ honoured for Mission Mexico

By COLLIN GALLANT on July 2, 2020.

Fr. Fred Monk poses for a portrait in front of St. Patrick's Church in Medicine Hat. The retired pastor has been awarded a Meritorious Service decoration for his charity work in southern Mexico. The honour was announced Wednesday by the Governor General's office in Ottawa.--NEWS PHOTO COLLIN GALLANT

A retired priest in Medicine Hat has been awarded one of Canada’s highest civilian honours for his work to raise more than $5 million for projects in one of the world’s poorest regions.

Fred Monk will receive the Meritorious Service Decoration, it was announced today as part of Canada Day honours awarded by Rideau Hall.

In total, Gov. Gen. Julie Payette will dish out 123 new awards and honours to Canadian military members and civilians for bravery or volunteer service.

Monk’s honour come in the civil division and recognizes “exceptional deeds” that bring honour to Canada, specifically founding Mission Mexico.

The organization has raised funds over 20 years for more than 80 health, education, economic and human rights projects in areas south of Mexico City.

“All I’ve done is what I think we should all do: be aware of others’ needs, reach out when we can and do what we can,” Monk told the News, saying that workers and permanent missionaries there deserve recognition.

“I haven’t done anything particularly heroic. I just had an idea.”

Over 20 years, the idea of helping to build one orphanage has grown to build and support schools, health initiatives, adult literacy programs and economic endeavours, like equipment for agricultural and sewing co-operatives, and other efforts to alleviate poverty in the Puebla region of the State of Guerrero.

Conditions there, in high mountains between Mexico City and the resort city of Acapulco, are still extremely difficult, said Monk.

“The United Nations has declared some of those to be among the poorest in the world,” he said.

“The average income in the mountainous areas is somewhere around C$20 a year. They live on flour tortillas and spend their days hunting for firewood.”

Political strife and violence are also present. Monk feels that the presence of international aid workers and religious figures provides some stability and security against authorities or crime syndicates who wish to avoid international incidents.

The programs – which now include schools, scholarships, support for small scale economic development and micro loans – provide “a hand up” and hope, he said.

The genesis of Mission Mexico, said Monk, came from a memory of a former high school teacher, also a priest, who spent a summer teaching math as a street missionary in the area.

It became fully formed after Monk was transferred from Medicine Hat in 1998 to Cochrane, Alta., to help oversee the process of building a new church there.

“I thought that if we didn’t do something for others, we didn’t need to build our church – it wouldn’t make any sense,” said Monk, who began contacting colleagues.

He found there were permanent missionaries in the area of Mexico, including Mike MacDonald, another teacher at Monk’s former high school (St. Mary’s in Calgary), and found out there was a need for an orphanage.

“I had a dream that if each of our parishioners simply gave a loonie a week for a year, we’d raise $100,000,” said Monk, who convinced the church council, then later that year at Christmas Mass announced $110,000 had been raised.

An additional $50,000 flowed in by New Year’s, then, over time, Monk successfully petitioned that it become an official outreach priority of the Catholic Diocese of Southern Alberta and Calgary separate schools.

“That’s how we did it … And that’s how I became known as the loonie priest,” said Monk.

“But it’s almost $5.5 million now that we’ve raised it: one loonie at a time.”

Monk remained in Cochrane for nine years, then returned to southeast Alberta with a posting in Bow Island that lasted until is retirement in 2017.

Over that time, he became immersed in his hobby of photography and has self-published 17 books of photographs detailing rural life throughout the region.

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