When word spread that Holy Cross Ukrainian Parish in Surrey, B.C., had welcomed the stranger in Gordon Petrie into its community, the news reached his sister, Kris Zemlak, who made the nine-hour trek from Prince George to reunite with the brother she hadn’t seen in 22 years. Photo courtesy of Bruce Hitchen

From the streets to a family reunion

  • August 2, 2020

After years of loneliness living on the streets, Gordon Petrie’s chance move into a rundown shed outside a Ukrainian Catholic church in Surrey, B.C., has brought him friendship, community and a family reunion out of his wildest dreams.

Staff at Holy Cross Ukrainian Catholic Church were surprised to see a homeless stranger, captured on video surveillance as the parish was under COVID-19 lockdown, who had come not to steal or to vandalize but was actually taking care of the church property.

“When I first met him, I had showed up to go and cut the lawn only to find it had already been done because Gordon had taken the initiative to do it,” said Bruce Hitchen, the parish president who soon struck up a friendship with Petrie. “He started doing things without any expectation of anything in return.”

“I just liked what I was doing,” said Petrie, who has worked as a tradesman. “I was making the property look good.”

“The consensus was that he was providing much more good than harm. He was doing things that were being very helpful to our parish such as cleaning, taking the garbage out and that was a real benefit,” said Hitchen.

Petrie has struggled with drug addiction over the years and for the past three has been living entirely on the streets. While figuring out how to get Petrie into a better housing situation, Hitchen and the parish welcomed him into their community and ensured he had access to water, electricity and other basic needs.

The heartwarming story soon spread and came to the attention of Petrie’s long-lost sister, Kris Zemlak, who had been searching for him for about a decade. Living in Prince George, she hopped in her car and made the nine-hour drive south to Surrey to be reunited with her brother, who she hadn’t seen in 22 years, and only intermittently in the years before that after Petrie moved away with their mother when they were teens.

For Petrie, the moment was more than a dream come true when he heard a familiar voice calling his name.

“My sister has the same voice as my mother, but my mum has been dead for five years so I just couldn’t believe I was hearing my mother calling my name,” said the 51-year-old Petrie. “I didn’t know if I was dreaming or what was going on and then eventually, I saw her face and realized the sound of my mother’s voice was coming from my sister.”

Throughout the years, Zemlak would make the trek south to search the homeless population on Surrey’s streets in hopes of finding him, but had always come up short.

“To see a family member or any other person living in the conditions that he lives in can only be described as heartbreaking,” said Zemlak. “We all go through many bumps in life, but he has had more bumps than most of us and I can only describe him as a survivor.”

With the help of the Surrey fire inspector, Hitchen has found a temporary solution to Petrie’s housing needs, a hotel room managed and paid for through its Housing Assistance Program. Petrie moved in on July 18.

Hitchen and the church had originally hoped to find Petrie a home in an old house on the property but it proved uninhabitable due to mould. The house and the shed he had been living in will be boarded up to meet B.C. regulations to prevent squatters.

Zemlak was moved by the acceptance and help her brother has received from Hitchen and the church community.

“Drug addicts are people just like you and me and each of us needs a purpose to our days and Gordon found his at the church,” said Zemlak, a wife and mother of two who works with adults and children with special needs. “He took great pride in showing me all of his meaningful work and the shed that he called his ‘home.’ ”

Petrie celebrated his birthday with his sister and parishioners who sang to him and even baked him a cake. Petrie says his friendship with Hitchen and the church has been a godsend and although they are still looking for permanent housing, he knows “God has a plan” for his life and that leading him to the church was part of his destiny. With the help of Hitchen, his support worker and case manager, Petrie looks to be on his way to recovery and hopes he can get his life back on track and be reunited with more family one day.

Zemlak will be taking a bit of time to process the emotional three-day reunion and considering ways she might be able to help her brother and perhaps others in Surrey’s homeless community.   

“We do not know where this is going,” Zemlak said. “But for now, he has a warm bed and a friend.” 

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