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Maria Aurella Sareal, right, speaks with Aletha Hernandez outside the Multicultural Helping House Society’s Newcomer Resource Centre in Vancouver on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012. Both women are Tagalog-speaking immigrants from the Philippines.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Lonely, depressed and missing her family in the Philippines, Cosette Pena looked to God in hopes of finding comfort in her new adoptive country.

Now, 20 years after it was founded in 1992, the tiny evangelical church in Montreal where Pena forged vital links to the Filipino community in Canada is bursting at the seams with new members and searching for a new, larger building to call home.

"I found a connection immediately because the people are so friendly," said the 53-year-old Pena, one of thousands of Filipinos who have settled in Canada through the federal government's live-in caregiver program.

"If people have problems — they are depressed, they miss their families — then it's a way of coping."

The Philippines emerged between 2006 and 2011 as a leading country of birth for people who immigrated to Canada during those five years.

An estimated 152,300 of newcomers who arrived in Canada between 2006 and 2011 — about 13.1 per cent — were born in the Philippines, Statistics Canada reported Wednesday as it released the first tranche of data from its 2011 National Household Survey. The voluntary survey, which replaced the mandatory long-form census, is not expected to be as accurate as its predecessors but should accurately reflect broad shifts in the makeup of the population.

The survey showed the Philippines as "the leading country of birth" for Canadian immigrants during that five-year period — but a note in the release Wednesday said the result "was not in line" with data from Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

"A number of factors could explain this difference, such as the effects of sampling, response patterns, and under- or over-estimation of certain groups of recent immigrants in the NHS."

While the Christian faith continues to dominate Canada's immigrant profile, its proportion has been steadily fading. Where more than 78 per cent of immigrants to Canada prior to 1971 identified themselves as Christians, that proportion has dropped to 47.5 per cent among those who arrived over the past five years, the survey found.

Meanwhile, the Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist faiths have been growing, claiming 33 per cent of those immigrants who arrived between 2001 and 2011. Among those who arrived before 1971, that share was just 2.9 per cent. All told, the four religions accounted for some 2.4 million people in Canada in 2011, about 7.2 per cent, compared with 4.9 per cent a decade earlier.

And then there's the non-believers: nearly one-quarter of the Canadian population, some 7.8 million people, claimed no religious affiliation in 2011, up from 16.5 per cent in 2001.

The arrival of religious immigrants has worked to offset the country's growing secular population, said Morton Weinfeld, a sociology professor at McGill University in Montreal.

"To a certain extent, this adds a level of traditionalism to Canadian society," Weinfeld said. "There is probably a higher level of commitment (among immigrants) to their respective faiths."

Unlike its predecessor, the cancelled mandatory long-form census, the results of the 2011 survey come with a caveat: because the NHS was voluntary, Statistics Canada warns that its findings carry a greater risk of "non-response error."

For many immigrant groups, religion plays a vital role as new arrivals to Canada contend with the often confounding challenges and difficulties that come with establishing a new home in a completely different country, he added.

"Churches or mosques or even some synagogues help in the adjustment and integration process."

Pena's church is located in Montreal's Cote-des-Neiges neighbourhood, one of the most densely populated and ethnically diverse in Canada.

The First Filipino Baptist Church of Montreal is one of three small evangelical churches that have popped up on a two-block stretch.

In its earliest years, the congregation amounted to about a dozen people, made up mostly of Filipinas who came to Canada under the caregiver program, said Chamberlina Lazaga, who joined the church when she arrived in Canada in the early 1990s.

"To be away from family, it's hard," Lazaga said. "So we founded this second family."

Today, the church plays a key role in assisting new members arriving from the Philippines get settled in Canada, helping them to find an apartment, collect furniture and amass the necessary clothing for the harsh Canadian winter.

"It's not only spiritually, it's all aspects of life," Lazaga said.

The ranks of the church's congregation swelled gradually as the women who founded it became landed immigrants, sponsored their husbands, and had more children.

Membership now totals more than 100 people, forcing the church to divide its service into two separate Sunday services.

For the moment, the service is held in a space about the size of a coffee shop on the ground floor of a modest two-storey brick building, while the basement and the top floor are reserved for Sunday school.

Like many Filipinos, Pena was raised as a Catholic, but turned to her new Baptist faith in Singapore, where she worked as a nanny before moving to Montreal.

She became a Canadian citizen in July 1999. She continues to work as a nanny for a French-speaking family, and says the church has been a source of strength through the years.

"I truly believe only God can help people in terms of their problems in life," she said.

"For us, it is very fulfilling."

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