Kevin Feehan still recalls the early days of Catholic Social Services, when board meetings would take place around the dining room table at the home of Monsignor William Irwin, who founded the agency.
Feehan was initially asked by “Father Bill” to provide legal help to CSS in 1985. Now 34 years later, Feehan has been honoured as the first-ever recipient of the Archbishop J.H. MacDonald Distinguished Lifetime Contribution Award, named for the prelate who encouraged Irwin to start CSS in 1961.
“I’m very pleased because when Father Bill first asked me to get involved, I didn’t know what I was going into,” said Feehan. “Now I’m proud to brag about the great work that we’ve done and are still doing. This organization has grown to serve so many people in so many walks of life.”
Feehan now serves as a judge with the Alberta Court of Appeal and has retired from the CSS board.
He said he’s proud to have witnessed the evolution of CSS from big dreams around a dining room table to the largest social service agency in Canada. With a staff of more than 1,800 and a budget that exceeds $95 million, the agency served more than 21,000 people in 2018 alone.
The lifetime achievement award closed out the agency’s annual Mission Recognition Awards on April 10 in Edmonton. The ceremony honours employees who best reflect the mission and goals of Catholic Social Services.
Monsignor Irwin died in 2004 at the age of 76, but he has left a permanent legacy across Canada and in Alberta. His memory is honoured in Edmonton with a namesake park and elementary school.
Back in 1985, Feehan says he was initially asked just perform “one small task” for Monsignor Irwin – to provide legal assistance in the creation of the Sign of Hope campaign. That single task turned into three decades as chair and board member of various CSS efforts.
But his connection to CSS goes back even further than that. Feehan’s mother, Kay, was one of three inaugural board members when CSS was founded in 1961.
“In a way, Kevin was a part of the legacy of Catholic Social Services before he even knew he was,” said Troy Davies, chief executive officer of CSS.
“As a child he was there to witness this agency at its humble roots. When we talked about who ought to be the first recipient of the award, the name of Kevin Feehan rolled off a lot of people’s lips.”
Currently CSS provides services to those facing a wide variety of challenges and needs, including homelessness, domestic abuse, addition recovery, pregnancy support, immigration and settlement, and disability outreach.
Over three decades, Feehan has been directly involved with new challenges facing CSS, including opioid addiction and mental health issues.
“There’s a greater understanding now than there was in the 1980s around mental health,” Davies explained. “As social science has evolved, there’s a deeper appreciation of the role that trauma has played in many vulnerable people’s lives.
“Our clients that have been traumatized by homelessness, being institutionalized, and Indigenous clients that have suffered through the residential school system ̶ we’ve increased our capacity and skillset to respond on that front.”
Looking back, Feehan said efforts like the opening of Edmonton’s Kairos House ̶ Alberta’s first residence for people with HIV and AIDS ̶ stand out. Being at the forefront of so many social services in Alberta is something for which he will always be grateful.
While he may be retired from the CSS board, Feehan hopes to volunteer and stay involved.
“Oh, they’ll never get rid of me,” he said with a smile. “I’m retired from the board but that doesn’t mean I’ll be going away.”