A local woman carries a baby at the site where an apartment building was damaged during Russian missile strikes in Kyiv, Ukraine June 24, 2023. OSV News/Valentyn Ogirenko, Reuters

Jesuits reopen Montreal’s ‘Old Villa’ for Ukrainians fleeing wartorn homeland

  • July 13, 2023

Just a little more than six months after Fr. Kevin Kelly SJ cleared the rooms and locked the doors for what he thought was the last time at a former Jesuit retreat house in Montreal, he and his team have now scrambled to prepare the Old Villa to once again welcome Ukrainians to Canada.

Kelly, executive director of the Ignatian Spirituality Center of Montreal (ISCM), was approached by the Quebec Ministry of Immigration in 2022 with a request to offer Ukrainians fleeing the war in their homeland short-term accommodation at the Villa St. Martin. The neo-gothic building had served the Jesuit community and the public as a place of retreat since 1953. In 2021, the ISCM and Jesuits purchased a new property from the Sainte-Croix sisters to run their retreat centre and the “Old Villa” was up for sale and stood empty as it waited for a buyer.

In March 2022, the federal government established an entry program for Ukrainians affected by the Russian invasion. To date, 164,626 Ukrainians have arrived under the Canada-Ukraine authorization for emergency travel (CUAET) program. A further 620,000 have received approval but have not yet landed in Canada. Successful applicants receive a three-year work visa and up to two weeks of temporary housing.

With approximately 30 to 40 Ukrainians arriving in Montreal every day, Kelly and his team housed and assisted a constant stream of Ukrainian families between the opening of the Old Villa in June 2022 to its close in November that year.

Judy Wong, executive director of Catholic Action Montreal, was an essential member of Kelly’s team. Her organization provided a ready supply of volunteers, about 15 a week, to assist the new arrivals in finding housing, schools and jobs.

“We had an amazing team, the process was flawless,” Wong told The Catholic Register.

“Literally the morning after they arrive at the Villa, we take them to Service Canada where they get their SIN number.”

Between Catholic Action Montreal, Jesuit Refugee Servicesand the ISCM, the blend of Catholic volunteers provided a unique and welcoming temporary refuge for the Ukrainians, and it was a project that all groups were happy to get behind. He and his team “are grateful for the experience,” said Kelly.

After nine months, Wong said: “Kevin thought we were done.”

But on July 14, the Old Villa opened its doors for a second time. According to Kelly, the ministry of immigration is now faced with paying larger summer-season bills for the hotel rooms where many of the Ukrainian new arrivals were billeted for their first weeks in Montreal.

There are differences this year. One is preparation.

“Though we have the experience on the process side, the facility is not prepared like it was last year. We have to get everything, beds, dressers, curtain rods,” Wong said.

The other difference is the Ukrainians themselves.

Angila Kuzina arrived from the Ukraine in March 2022. Though she never stayed at the Villa, she went to work there, looking after the children while their parents were doing the busy work of getting re-established after fleeing their war-torn homeland.

This year, there are arrivals from other points of departure.

“In the beginning, last year, we came away from Ukraine because of war,” said Kuzina. “Now, I see people who for several years lived in Poland and other countries and are deciding to come to Canada.”

Kelly will sign a 10-week contract with the Quebec ministry after which the YMCA will take over the administration of the program.

The Old Villa will have new owners who are happy for the building to continue to shelter its new arrivals. With so many Ukrainians still expected, and Canada having so far received only 20 per cent of the nearly 800,000 approved, the building will clearly be needed for several years yet.

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