Fr. 'Pops' Johns pictured with the homeless youth he helped with his street program called "Le Bon Dieu dans la Rue" in Montreal. Screenshot from "Fr. Emmett 'Pops' Johns"/Fondation Tolerance (Youtube)

Fr. ‘Pops’ Johns beloved on city streets for work with runaway youth

By  Alan Hustak
  • January 22, 2018
MONTREAL – Fr. Emmett “Pops” Johns, a gruff Montreal street priest who was beloved for his work with homeless and runaway youth, died Jan. 14. He was 89.

Fr. Johns was a freewheeling clergyman who had a pilot’s license and for 16 years flew his own plane. He was also a former boxer who rode a motorcycle and, at one time in his life, packed a pistol.

But he left all that behind after he suffered a nervous breakdown and, following a recovery period, began a ministry which grew into the successful Le Bon Dieu dans La Rue program for youth.

He was admired throughout Quebec. A recent public opinion poll by the French-language 7 Jours magazine ranked him fifth on its list of the most admired people in the province. He was invested in the Order of Canada in 1999 and in the Order of Quebec in 2003.

Fr. Johns’s generous, unassuming style made him popular with youth. He once said it was never his job to judge, but rather to help street kids and runaways to absorb a sense of spirituality.

“I just tell them that God loves them,” he would say. “If no one else in the world loves them, they should know that God loves them.”

Inspired by St. Matthew’s Gospel, 25:41-46 (“When you do it to the least of my brothers, you do it to Me”), he began his street ministry in 1988 following a traumatic incident. While he was preaching a retreat in the Laurentians, two nursing students from St. Mary’s Hospital drowned. The deaths had a profound effect on Fr. Johns and contributed to a nervous breakdown.

Although he recovered, he felt he had become tainted by the stigma of mental instability. The diocese, in his words, “abandoned me, and I was unable to find work.”
In 1988, when it became clear that he would not be assigned to another parish, he sold his plane, borrowed $10,000, and opened a youth shelter known as “The Bunker.” Then he began prowling the mean streets of Montreal in a beat-up van dispensing coffee and hot dogs to street youth. The kids gave him the nickname “Pops.”

“My first goal was to provide these kids with a safe place to crash,” he told his biographer, Katia Moskvitch. “Street kids are vulnerable and, without a safe place to sleep, they are lost.

“Initially, all I did was set out to help kids, thinking that mission would help me get back on my feet. Then I discovered there were youngsters out there who needed me as much as I needed them.”

One of those street kids, Stephanie Pagno, says she owes her life to Johns.

“Kids trusted him,” she said. “They knew they were safe with him.”

Eventually, as Fr. John’s ministry grew, the Quebec government began to provide funding and, in keeping with the province’s secular requirements, the organization had to drop “Bon Dieu” from its name and today is simply called Dans la Rue. It has become a $3-million charitable operation that employees 65 and has hundreds of volunteers.

“I can’t pretend that I was essential,” he said before he died. “If any of these kids were rehabilitated, God did the job, not me.”

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