Canada: ‘Not a public playground’: Toronto church’s sign offends neighbours, but priest says it’s the only way to fend off sex, drugs and fencing duels - PressFrom - Canada
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Canada‘Not a public playground’: Toronto church’s sign offends neighbours, but priest says it’s the only way to fend off sex, drugs and fencing duels

15:11  19 september  2019
15:11  19 september  2019 Source:   thestar.com

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Tobon believes it is the only way to get his message across. Advising people that the church is not a public playground is a “funny choice of words,” he says . In the bigger picture, Dann Mitton knows the sign at St. Brigid’ s “does not even make a blip,” but it speaks to neighbours , kindness and respect.

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‘Not a public playground’: Toronto church’s sign offends neighbours, but priest says it’s the only way to fend off sex, drugs and fencing duels© Provided by Toronto Star Newspapers Limited Father Carlos Augusto Sierra Tobon, the parish priest at St. Brigid’s Catholic Church. says the sign is the result of longstanding problems and safety concerns on the church property. “I cannot be every time saying, ‘Come on!’ You get fed up.”

Fencing bouts on the church lawn. Drug use in the parking lot. Risqué photo shoots near the shrine to Our Lady of Fatima. As the parish priest of St. Brigid’s, Father Carlos Augusto Sierra Tobon has been a sentry against misuse of the church property and the associated safety risks for many years now, and he is growing weary.

So a month ago, he and the church put up a couple of new signs on the west wall of their historic stone building near Danforth and Woodbine Aves. Perhaps if they chose “Please respect the church grounds,” nobody would have noticed. But they went with: “NOT A PUBLIC PLAYGROUND.” In a neighbourhood saturated with children — tucked inside strollers, riding bikes, on their parents’ backs — people started to talk.

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Tobon believes it is the only way to get his message across. “I cannot be every time saying, ‘Come on!’ You get fed up. I cannot be behind the windows.”

Dann Mitton has lived in the neighbourhood for 22 years, and saw the sign while walking his dog. He doesn’t have children, but if he did, “I would feel completely forbidden to coexist on that little patch of lawn, and that didn’t seem right.” He wanted to see what the neighbours thought so he posted about it in his community Facebook group.

The thread exploded, 304 comments and counting. Some were sympathetic to the church: “Why does everyone feel that their kids have a right to play everywhere??” A few said they might bring their dog over for a urinary protest, while many questioned the brusque tone. “My husband and I grumble about that sign every time we walk by,” one person said. “They should be happy kids feel welcome.”

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At the core of the discussion was a debate about what it means to be welcoming. “How do you feel welcome in a spiritual community unless you walk in through the doors?” parishioner Marie Tela-Selvaggio said. “You have to come in and see what happens on the inside.”

Mitton attended bible college, but says he is no longer a person of faith. His understanding of Christianity has always included the idea of welcoming the stranger, being of service, being hospitable. “I hate to quote New Testament, but Matthew 19:14. It’s that passage where Jesus says suffer the little children that come on to me. Except at this Catholic church, where they don’t want them playing on the lawn.”

Sitting inside his office, Tobon objects. “Listen to me, we are the only parish that has puppets mass for children, we are the only parish that has catechisms for impaired children with a mental disability … we are the only parish that has a group therapy for children with those kind of disabilities,” he says. “Don’t tell me we don’t care about children. We care in an orderly way.”

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He talks about the church’s merger with another parish, and all of the work and money they have put into facilities, including the new roof and parking lot. The church is preparing for its 100th anniversary next year. They spent $7,000 to “recover the grass” a couple years ago, they pay a caretaker, and have a volunteer gardener, all to create an inviting place, he says.

As he talks, a small cat darts in and out of the room. The cat is a stray he adopted at his last parish in Etobicoke. He keeps a laser pointer on his desk to entertain the cat. His office walls feature religious imagery, the Canadian national anthem, and a certificate for a one-week course in exorcism that he completed in Rome.

He lives above the church office, so he is confronted with issues regularly. At midnight one evening, he was looking out his window to say goodnight to the shrine when he saw a woman who was not Our Lady of Fatima, in a state of undress with a young man holding a phone. He ran downstairs to tell them to get out. Another day before sundown, he stopped a middle-aged couple who were becoming amorous behind the shrine. “Come on! You don’t respect even the blessed mother?”

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Heather Davies heard about the shrine shenanigans in a letter from Tobon, and she’s not sure the sign will help with those issues. She lives in the neighbourhood and wrote to let him know the sign came across as unfriendly. “From a community perspective, this certainly doesn’t represent the Catholic Church in a positive light and I have heard many neighbours and friends comment on them,” she wrote. Davies used to attend St. Brigid’s — her daughter was baptized there — but now her family goes to a United Church.

Davies doesn’t think children should play anywhere they want. “I do understand that it is a sacred space,” she says. The issue is “the wording and the message.”

When Tobon wrote back to Davies, he mentioned the green space being used for hockey, soccer, fencing, dog grooming and the problems with sex, drugs, alcohol and unauthorized student driver training in the parking lot, where people rent spaces. He also noted that older children and teens have climbed on the chapel roof. He said issues occur “daily if not weekly.”

In her response, Davis suggested options like “Monitored by CCTV,” “Please keep off the grass,” or “Use parking lot at your own risk.”

Outside the church on a recent weekday, three boys rolled through the parking lot on scooters and bikes. Tobon pointed out there were no parents in sight.

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It was Friday, and four nuns went to the priest at the local Catholic church to ask for the weekend off . They argued back and forth for a few minutes. A nun and a priest were traveling across the desert and realized halfway across that the camel they were using for transportation was about to die.

(A few days later, a representative of the church emailed a security video showing two children using their scooters in the lot. “You will notice that one child takes a pretty nasty spill,” the email read. “This highlights exactly why we have signs posted that this is not a playground. Question is: Where are the parents/caregivers?”)

Tobon says he is concerned with safety and liability issues. “It’s very good to sue, and to sue the church.”

Whether the sign will help is not clear. Erik Knutsen, a professor at Queen’s University specializing in accident and insurance law, says people often misunderstand their legal obligations as property owners. In Ontario, the Occupier’s Liability Act essentially says a property owner has to act reasonably, and keep the property reasonably safe for any visitors. There is a difference between being sued and being sued successfully.

“Pardon the use of this, but it’s in God’s hands,” he says. “If you worry about Risk A, Risk B is going to show up that you haven’t thought of. We just have to be reasonable; the law affords us that degree of protection.”

Knutsen says if he sees a sign that says “Beware of Dog” but ignores it, “that’s on me if the dog is Cujo and eats me up,” because he willingly assumed the risk. Advising people that the church is not a public playground is a “funny choice of words,” he says.

In the bigger picture, Dann Mitton knows the sign at St. Brigid’s “does not even make a blip,” but it speaks to neighbours, kindness and respect. A sign doesn’t inform a “complete vibe,” he says, but can go a long way toward fostering a sense of welcoming, or the opposite.

“I feel like I already have a bias against religion as an institution, and I can own that, but a sign like this seems to be trapped in the 1930s Catholic Church,” he says.

Inside his office, Tobon isn’t budging.

“Sometimes, against the trend, against being politically correct, somebody has to say the truth,” he says. “I do it for the sake of building the kingdom here.”

Katie Daubs is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @kdaubs

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