The message hasn’t changed in 60 years at The Good Shepherd in downtown Toronto — the homeless are welcome. Michael Swan

The Good Shepherd turns 60

  • September 14, 2023

In 1963 white-robed brothers with borrowed crowbars started pulling apart the Imperial Theatre on Queen Street East, preparing the building for its transformation into The Good Shepherd shelter. Almost immediately after brothers with wheelbarrows full of rubble showed up on the street, unemployed, transient men started coming round, offering strong arms and backs for the demolition work that would level out the raked floor of the theatre. That spring Globe and Mail reporter Eric Dowd called the sudden flurry of volunteer Catholic construction “a do-it-yourself project.”

After the Second World War, with thousands of men demobilized from the armed forces, Toronto was a powerful magnet for men looking for work in factories, construction and warehouses. A global recession in 1958 pitched the working poor into brutal competition with one another for the few jobs available, and many from small towns and the countryside hit the road, heading for cities and looking for work.

Seaton House, the Scott Mission, the Salvation Army and the Fred Victor Mission were there and ready to take in transient men, give them shelter and help them to find work. Toronto Catholics were late to the party. In 1962 the United Church’s Fred Victor Mission and the Salvation Army together hosted 2,200 Catholic men.

When the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd showed up in Toronto, the order was already running similar shelters in Hamilton and several American cities. Toronto’s new, young and energetic coadjutor Archbishop Philip Pockock arrived in 1961 with a new broom, ready to refocus the archdiocese on the challenges poor people faced in a rapidly urbanizing society. He was an enthusiastic backer of the brothers and the shelter project.

Pocock and the Little Brothers were determined that this would not be a Catholic service just for Catholics. The Good Shepherd would be there for all, as a service to the entire city. Nobody would be forced to pray for their soup, or attend Mass before finding a bed. Just months before the brothers with crowbars arrived at the Imperial Theatre, Pocock would join three other Canadian bishops at the opening of the Second Vatican Council. The Good Shepherd was just one way for Pocock to show Toronto Catholics what was happening in the Universal Church.

Has anything changed since 1963? Of course it has, but as The Good Shepherd marks its 60th anniversary much remains the same, Good Shepherd Ministries executive director Aklilu Wendaferew told The Catholic Register.

“We are still focused on the mission that the Brothers had in 1963,” Wendaferew said. “Being available to the homeless and the marginalized, meeting the needs that have not been met by others, being compassionate, providing compassionate and dignified service. The mission continues.”

Until 1980 everything The Good Shepherd did was done by a religious brother, a religious sister, a priest or a volunteer. In the 43 years since The Good Shepherd hired its first employee, it has built up a skilled and professional workforce of over 100. But volunteers still provide much of the muscle and energy to feed, house and help thousands of people every week.

“It’s a Christian calling, I guess — putting into action what we believe,” kitchen volunteer Ed Piccinin said during a break from chopping vegetables on a steamy last day of August. “Like feeding the hungry, housing the poor, looking after people with addictions. It’s all here. The Good Shepherd doesn’t just talk about it. It actually does it. That’s why I’m here. I believe in this stuff.”

The retired Ontario civil servant is also in The Good Shepherd’s kitchen week after week in memory of his daughter Jessica. Jessica had suffered with chronic, debilitating depression. As a father, Piccinin had wanted to help by getting her involved in the wider world. So the two of them would come down to The Good Shepherd regularly to volunteer. After seven years, Jessica did succumb to her disease and died by suicide. But Piccinin remembers the hope he and Jessica experienced at The Good Shepherd.

“I thought, ‘What can I do in her memory?’ ” he explained. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to go to The Good Shepherd.’ So I started in the kitchen and I’m still here in the kitchen and it has been years.”

He’s not looking for a promotion. In feeding people, he’s found plenty of reason to keep showing up.

“When I saw the numbers that came through the doors, I was just blown away by that. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Piccinin said. “I never imagined that we could be feeding that many people — 600 a day, 700 a day. It’s unbelievable.”

The Good Shepherd’s faith has never been afraid of the unbelievable. In 1986, when the AIDS epidemic gripped North America in fear (it had been called GRID, or Gay-Related Immune Deficiency until 1983) The Good Shepherd opened Toronto’s first residence (in reality a hospice at that time) for people living with HIV/AIDS. Since then Barrett House has become a model of supportive housing for people with complex medical needs.

For the last 15 years, Fr. Jorge Pingel, M.D. has been living at Barrett House — ever since he was discharged from hospital after 16 months of treatment for spinal meningitis. The disease left him with limited mobility (he uses a walker) and slurred speech, but Barrett House gives the Ecuadorian priest and doctor the support he needs to live a full life.

Pingel continues a life-long struggle with the English language, going by subway every day to English classes. He also attends Mass most days at St. Paul’s Basilica, practically across the street from Barrett House. He keeps in touch with Hispanic refugees from Venezuela newly arrived in Toronto.

“I speak with them. I do counselling. I give advice,” Pingel said.

It’s a long way from his 25 years of medical practice among the poor at a hospital in Guayaquil and his 35 years serving as a priest in Ecuador. But the richness of Pingel’s life, despite his disabilities, is made possible by the medical and social support he receives at Barrett House.

“This place is a blessing for me,” the 71-year-old said.

Barrett House isn’t the only Good Shepherd supportive housing venture. Since 1999, The Good Shepherd has provided supportive housing for chronically homeless seniors. Seniors, 55 and older, are the fastest growing segment of Toronto’s exploding homeless population.

At 72, James Michael Brookman can’t imagine how he could ever afford to rent his own room, let alone an apartment, in Toronto’s spiralling housing market. When the house he and his common-law partner Brenda had been living in for nine years was condemned two years ago, the idea of finding a new place was overwhelming. Then Brenda died.

On top of the emotional blow of losing his partner of 35 years, Brookman faced the housing market with just one income of between $1,500 and $2,000 a month. A single room can cost that much in Toronto. So after you pay the rent, how do you eat?

In 1985 Brookman was “getting $5,000 every two days in my pocket.” As a licenced machine technologist working in the oil patch, Brookman was a precious commodity. But things went sour when his first wife left him for another man and sold his tools for cash. Brookman blames himself for too many weeks away from home, travelling from job to job.

Secure in his place at St. Joseph’s, Brookman has revived a part of his younger self that minored in studio arts. He carves and decorates intricate walking sticks from deadfall branches. Having a home gives him the freedom to express himself in wood and paint.

It’s the small things, the practical help, the attention to each individual and their story that makes The Good Shepherd what it is, said Hospitaller Brothers of St. John of God provincial superior Brother David Lynch. (In 2017 the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd merged with the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God. Lynch made a seamless transition from Br. David Lynch LBGS to Br. David Lynch OH.) The expatriate Irishman ran the operation as executive director for 27 years, up until 2022, before moving on to a more strategic role with the board of directors.

Lynch’s vocation of direct service to the poor has been backed up and blessed by Pope Francis.

“To love God and neighbour is not something abstract, but profoundly concrete: it means seeing in every person the face of the Lord to be served, to serve Him concretely,” Pope Francis told the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s Sisters) at a visit to their homeless shelter in Rome in 2013.

Lynch entertains no illusion that The Good Shepherd is defeating homelessness on the streets of Toronto. Over 60 years, the homeless population has grown year after year — the depth of poverty on the street has sunk while complexity of addiction and mental health conditions has multiplied.

So how does it feel to face failure day after day?

“But it’s not failure,” Lynch said. “If you’re faced with an overwhelming obstacle, you have a choice. You either attack it, go at it piece by piece, or you throw a tantrum and sit down and cry over it. We prefer to take it apart piece by piece.”

It’s the encounter with each individual in their addiction, their sickness, their poverty, their heartbreak and their shame that feeds The Good Shepherd’s mission. Lynch is pushing the organization to do more every day.

“We have developed plans to build a 95-unit accommodation, supportive housing, that gives long-term housing that supports men who have a history of homelessness — men and women, actually,” said Lynch. “We are actively bidding for funding for that. We have the property. We have the plans. We have the zoning. Shortly we will have the building permits. The only thing we are waiting on is funding.”

Sitting in the chapel, where the Imperial Theatre box office used to be, Lynch burns with evangelical zeal.

“Even our name speaks of The Good Shepherd. It’s Biblical. Hospitality, the way we present it, is Biblical. Being a welcoming presence, as our staff are trained in, is Biblical,” he said. “It’s very important for us that we continue to keep our religious identity. It’s important for our community… to let them see that there is a caring God.”

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.