Leon Blais takes a selfie with a group of students on retreat, where he shared his personal conversion story. Photo courtesy Leon Blais

‘God is on this block’

  • December 15, 2023

“Father Tony told me, ‘You gotta start telling these stories, ’cause these are the gospels of our time,’” recalls Leon Blais, who after 20 years has dropped a life of crime for life with God. “I never understood it at the time, but there’s so much going on in this community, it’s amazing.”

This convict-turned-Catholic is doing amazing things in the community at St. Patrick’s Parish in Hamilton, Ont. After spending the greater part of his youth struggling with addiction and ensconced in crime, Blais is now preparing meals at the parish for a community filled with people in situations much like he once experienced.

All Blais can see now are blessings, and he describes how God took the miseries of life and transformed them into redemptive work. Blais explains how, because of his 20 years in crime and prison, he is now able to reach people in a uniquely fearless and authentic way. 

Blais has become part of a bridge between the church and an isolated community, showing the endless mercy of God to those who would otherwise have been turned away, and encouraging each to come back each day with a fresh start.

“I’m sober now but this has very much been my community my whole life … the guests have that history with me,” said Blais. “All my brothers and sisters that are out here struggling right now, I’m just doing my best to try and be there for them.” 

This relationship began many years past, back eight years when he would partake in the food program at St. Patrick’s. Back then, Blais shared drugs and jail time with the other guests, but gratefulness as well for St. Patrick’s services. These guests and other parishioners are truly his family, and this Christmas, he looks forward to a big family gathering.

St. Patrick’s is expecting 600-700 people to attend its Christmas and New Year’s food program this year. The popular full-course dinners are provided by multiple sponsors including Hamilton Food Share and Liuna Banquet Center. Blais has been volunteering every Christmas since he started working with St Patrick’s. It’s a celebration he can’t miss.

“The types of smiles and relationships that I get to see developed through this place is unreal,” said Blais, recalling the joy he sees each Christmas. “I love this St. Patrick’s family, and especially around Christmas time, they definitely lean in for love and support.”

What started off long ago as a step forward via community service has turned into a leap of faith. A couple years ago, while doing his door duties at St. Patrick’s, Blais began to step inside to listen to and join in singing sacred music. Three years later, Blais enrolled in RCIA, leading to his eventual baptism. 

These days, Blais acknowledges every morning as a fresh start, slowly growing in his Catholic faith and bettering himself from the day before, and he is returning the relentless mercy God has shown him to those who come to the church for food.

It has its challenges at times: Blais has been met with some explosive, volatile outbursts, but he reaches out to each of these people the next day to give them another chance.

“The way I work out here is a new day is a new slate for everybody.”  

Because of his history and experience, Blais often takes on a security role for the program, and does not hesitate to insert himself in tense situations or mitigate issues among the guests. Blais recounts stories of people with schizophrenic episodes and overdose scares.

“It’s a cross-section of communities of all the socioeconomic classes, but a good percentage of the people that come here have mental health issues and addiction issues, and they also bring their traumas and their stress here,” he said.

Though at times this work is undeniably difficult, the fruits of it are also undeniable. Blais tells story after story of people who found hope, were given a second chance at life, reunited with loved ones and found faith. 

“Miracles happen out here every single day, and it’s so hard to articulate, but God is on this block, very much so. I’ve never met anyone in my life that gets to witness what I get to witness.”

From watching a homeless student reunited with his parents after a long separation, to seeing people being brought back from overdosing, Blais has indeed seen miracles, and this isn’t the only way God has turned his hardship into blessings. 

After the loss of multiple family members, Blais filled that familial void at St. Patrick’s, and was inspired to create programs and outreach for youth. He now visits numerous colleges and high schools, sharing the hope that Christ has to share with everyone, blessings that endure through all seasons of life, even when they aren’t easy to see. 

Don Hall is chaplaincy leader at Hamilton’s St. Mary’s Secondary School. He was impressed by the conversion story Blais recently shared with his students during a retreat.

“During the retreat at Mount Mary, you could hear a pin drop when Leon spoke, and our students had so many follow-up questions for him afterwards,” said Hall. “Leon inspired them by witnessing how the most painful lessons in life can be turned into wonderful blessings through the grace of God.” 

Blais’ message to the students, said Hall, was to not follow the path he did early in life.

“He encouraged our Grade 9 students to remain open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, be your own person and not follow the crowd, appreciate the beauty of nature and take advantage of the opportunity to continue their education.”

Blais has founded a non-profit art program called sEMart (Safe Educational Motivational ART). sEMart provides kids, many from impoverished homes, with a healthy outlet and a coping mechanism to promote emotional and psychological health. Teachers have reported huge success with sEMart students, saying their confidence has greatly increased.  

Having seen the hills and valleys life has to offer, Blais has a very important message to the youth of today.

“It’s so easy to get lost. Take great care in what you’re doing with your time. Don’t get distracted by the worldly things. Trust in God.” 

That trust, Blais says, leads to a transformative life.

“As much as I believed in Him throughout the most part of my life, I never trusted in God, and as soon as I started trusting in Him with not just my thoughts and my words but also with my actions, my whole life changed overnight and things that aren’t humanly possible became reality.”

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.