Fr. John Walsh’s life and legacy were celebrated during an online event Feb. 27. Fr. Walsh, who was a tireless advocate for the homeless in Montreal, died in 2020 at 78. Facebook photo

Fr. Walsh championed Montreal’s homeless

By 
  • March 4, 2022

The Canadian Centre for Ecumenism’s virtual event “The Itinerants Speak to us” provided a forum for society’s marginalized and voiceless to share their life story and offer perspective on how individuals can come together to combat poverty.

The second core purpose for this online interfaith gathering this past Sunday, Feb. 27 was celebrating the legacy of the late Fr. John Walsh. The beloved Montreal Catholic priest of 54 years passed away of a heart attack on Nov. 9, 2020 at age 78.

Walsh was heralded throughout the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Montreal – and beyond – for his work on behalf of the homeless and his passion for building bridges with other religious communities. 

Sheila Woodhouse, executive director of the Nazareth Community, began the tributes to Walsh. The nondenominational non-profit organization, located in Montreal’s downtown Ville Marie district, offers housing and support for men (Nazareth House), women (Anne’s House) and young adults (John’s House) struggling with mental health issues, homelessness, trauma and addiction.

“Fr. John was our friend and champion and so very active in supporting our residents,” said Woodhouse. 

John’s House was named in Fr. Walsh’s honour in a unanimous vote by the Nazareth Community board of directors in 2020. There was a tribute event for Fr. Walsh on Nov. 5, 2020, four days before his passing. The proceeds from this fundraiser went towards John House. The event featured musical entertainment from Montreal’s Sam Roberts Band.

Woodhouse said Fr. Walsh was known as “the rainmaker.”

“He was fearless in trying to raise awareness and funds for people who could not support themselves. Many times, I could come to work and he would be in the community room tucked away with some of the older gentleman. This was a man who met politicians, dignitaries and the Dalai Lama. He always said to me that he was happiest with the poor.”

Paul Paradis, president of the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism, also heaped praise on his late friend Fr. Walsh. Paradis first encountered Walsh during the latter’s final year of studies at the Grand séminaire de Montréal in 1966. Their personal connection would be forged later, but Walsh cast an impression on Paradis nonetheless.

“I didn’t know him very much, but enough to realize that he was a man who does not pass by without you noticing him,” Paradis said.

It was in 2008 or 2009 through the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism — Walsh was the delegate for Montreal’s English Catholic diocese — that the two became more acquainted: “He lived the Gospel every day,”

Paradis recalled a key publicized moment of Walsh’s life in 2005 when he served St. Jean de Brebeuf parish and hosted a weekly radio program on Montreal station CJAD.

He said if his intermittent congregant, then Prime Minister Paul Martin, made same-sex marriage lawful, Walsh would not deny Martin communion.

“Some people in the church wanted to excommunicate the Prime Minister [Martin] because of this law, but John said ‘no, God loves everybody.’ That was Fr. John. The incarnated Gospel, and the presence of Christ among our communities. He loved, loved and loved every day.”

Following testimonies from three itinerants, a roundtable panel featuring voices from the Catholic, Anglican, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Ojibwe spoke about how the work continues on behalf of the voiceless, and how everyone can strive to be “rainmakers” like Fr. Walsh.

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