Jazmin Torres, right, and her friend Sara share a table at the St. Paul’s Breakfast Club. Photo by Tim Wharnsby

St. Paul's Breakfast Club satisfies appetite for giving

By  Tim Wharnsby, Catholic Register Special
  • October 31, 2018

There already were a few children in line making a bowl of cereal or waiting for the toaster to pop when Jazmin Torres burst through the basement doors at 7:42 a.m. St. Paul’s Basilica in the Corktown neighbourhood of East Toronto.

TheSt. Paul’s Breakfast Club is part of Torres’ morning ritual. Before the first bell, the 13-year-old Grade 8 student at the neighbouring St. Paul Catholic School likes to start her day with a healthy meal, put the final touches on her homework and kibitz with friends.

“At first, when I was in Grade 5, I was scared to come here because of all the big kids,” she said. “Now I’m one of those big kids and I want to make sure nobody is afraid to come here.

“This is a good place to come for so many reasons. Of course, I like the pancakes. But I also like coming here to socialize with friends and to do some homework. But most importantly it’s good because it saves money for families.”

The St. Paul’s Breakfast Club, which began in 1988, was the brainchild of the late Fr. Tom Day and, thanks to the support of benefactors like the late John Bickley, it remains a vital part of the parish community 30 years later.

Day was the popular pastor of St. Paul’s, the oldest Catholic church in Toronto, that is situated a couple of blocks from Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood, a public housing project built in the 1940s that recently has been redeveloped.

Fr. Day was an activist who deeply cared about children. He wanted the children who attended St. Paul to have the same advantages as other children around the city, and to him, that meant having a good breakfast.

“Fr. Tom was a wonderful person,” said Blanca Amaya, a native of Guatemala, a former Regent Park resident and volunteer with the breakfast club for 26 years.

“This breakfast club has come a long way since its early years. Fr. Tom liked to serve the occasional (helping) of sausage or bacon to the kids because he liked sausage and bacon, too. But now we have nutritionists who visit us to make sure we’re serving a healthy breakfast.”

Through the watchful eye of these nutritionists Amaya, Sr. Margaret Patterson and other volunteers advocate the importance of drinking water and milk instead of juice.

This important program, however, would not be possible without donations from people like the John Bickley and his family.

Bickley, who died a year ago in his 90th year, was always grateful to the boost he and his sister Susan received from their foster parents, Charlotte and Fred Johnson in Windsor, Ont. That spirit of giving to children would stay with him a lifetime.

The Johnsons treated the new additions like their own children, even though they already had four young adult children of their own.

Bickley and his sister were part of the Blitzkrieg Kids during World War II who were sent out of harm’s way in England to safe havens like Canada. Bickley was 12 when he landed in Windsor and he immediately took to his new homeland by taking up ice skating.

He returned to England to become an engineering cadet with the British Army. He served in Kenya and Egypt but found time to climb Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro in February 1952, just as England was mourning the death of its monarch, George VI. Bickley would later tell friends that when he ascended the mountain England still had a King; when he descended England had a Queen (Elizabeth II).

He married a Canadian girl, Jean, who was travelling in Europe when the two met. She just happened to also be from Windsor.

Bickley went on to become an extremely successful civil engineer, specializing in concrete technology. 

He moved to Toronto but worked on projects in 16 different countries, including the CN Tour, Scotland’s Forth Road Bridge and the Mangla Dam in Pakistan.

John and Jean had four children of their own, but tragedy struck when their youngest daughter Shirley-Anne was killed when she was hit by a car in 1996.

It was a short time afterwards, Bickley would volunteer and provide generous financial support for the St. Paul’s Breakfast Club, who made sure the club was remembered in his Will.

“He said it was the best job he ever had,” said his widow Marilyn. 

Jean passed away in 2008 and John, after 52 years of marriage to her, found love again with Marilyn, a friend from Windsor of more than 40 years.

“I know John always was grateful for the way he was treated as a child by the Johnson family in a strange country that became his home,” said Marilyn. “He was a wonderful, caring man and we both felt that children should not go to school hungry.”

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