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Manitoba church shuttered by dwindling numbers reopens for first time in 13 years

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The bells are ringing once again outside the Roman Catholic church in Vita, Man. and for the first time in more than a decade, residents are back inside.

A rickety metal gate and a worn sign welcomes drivers along Highway 201 to the aging Saint Isidore Roman Catholic Parish in southeastern Manitoba.

The church was built in 1902, but was replaced with a larger building in 1964 – though pieces of the original building remain, including the altar and the bell.

Saint Isidore Roman Catholic Parish in Vita, Man. has reopened after 13 years. (Danton Unger/CTV News Winnipeg)

The church holds a special place in Julie Monastyrski's heart - her father helped build the church building and she grew up attending it as a child. She said the church closed 13 years ago as the area's population started to decline and attendance at the church dwindled.

"Everybody around here was aging, scattered all over," she said. "A lot of people wanted to open, but there were not enough people. It bothered me. My dad built this church… so yeah, it did hurt."

For more than a decade, the building sat shuttered. But that changed when residents noticed a growing need in the area. Dozens of Filipino newcomer families had settled in Vita.

"Most of the Filipino families here are newcomers. They're from the Philippines, they came here just a few months ago," said Audrey Cua, who moved to the community about 10 years ago.

During a meeting with the Archbishop in Winnipeg, Edwin Sonsona brought it up.

"I asked him, 'Do we have a Catholic Church in Vita?' Then he answered me, 'Oh yeah, we have one but it's closed,'" Sonsona said. "I never stopped asking. I said, 'Can we open it?"

He eventually got the okay to open the building. By the time they re-opened the doors of the old church and held mass in February – about 80 people packed inside.

Saint Isidore Roman Catholic Parish in Vita, Man. has reopened after 13 years. (Danton Unger/CTV News Winnipeg)

"I hope that as we gather together for Mass, for fellowship, for friendship in this building, the community will grow stronger," said Father Paul Nguyen, who is leading the church.

It's a sign of life and growth that extends beyond the old wooden pews of the church.

"Our community is definitely growing," said Michelle Gawronsky, the reeve in the Rural Municipality of Stuartburn.

The congregation at Saint Isidore Roman Catholic Parish in Vita, Man. (Supplied photo)

According to Statistics Canada, the population in the southeastern municipality has been steadily increasing in the past decade. Gawronsky said much of the growth is from newcomers settling in the community.

She said in recent years, the RM has welcomed members of the Filipino community, and the Vietnamese community along with the Amish and Mennonite community.

"To have something like a church open up by one of these wonderful groups that move in, actually shows the community spirit that they have," Gawronsky said.

It's a boom being felt right across southern Manitoba.

"We are seeing a lot of growth in many of our communities. Especially in southern Manitoba, we have one of the fastest growing communities in Canada," said Denys Volkov, the executive director of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities.

Volkov noted some challenges can come along with a booming population – infrastructure and services need to keep up. But he said many of these communities have seen the growth boosted by newcomers.

"There's smaller communities were able to draw on immigrants who would like to come to Canada and invite them into those communities. And there are many jobs in those communities as well," he said.

"We hear about welcoming communities so people feel more at home right away."

For folks like Cua, who have settled in Vita, the opening of the church has made all the difference. She said during the first mass in the church – surrounded by long-time residents and Filipino newcomers – it finally felt like home. 

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