Rev. John Walsh was a builder of bridges that spanned whole worlds – between Christians, Jews and Muslims, between secular and religious groups, and between the homeless and those who could help them. Diminutive in physical size, with a bald pate and big smile, he was a curious, compassionate man who did not distinguish between prime ministers and paupers, and who believed his task was to create heaven right here on earth.
“For him, heaven was a place for us in the here and now,” said Rev. Raymond Lafontaine of St. Monica’s parish in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood of Montreal. “His causes, such as his work with the homeless, were meant to make an immediate difference. He was an advocate for the voiceless – and he gave them their own voice.”
Sheila Woodhouse, the executive director of Nazareth Community, the charity founded by Father Walsh that runs non-profit residences for men and women struggling with mental-health issues, homelessness and addiction, said he loved people, period.
“If you went out for dinner with him, he would invariably ask the server where he or she was from, and have a whole conversation,” she recalled. “Our whole board was put together through him saying, ‘You need to talk to this person and that person.’ He knew everyone and he made it happen.”
A priest for more than 54 years, Father Walsh, renowned throughout the city as Father John, died in Montreal on Nov. 9 after suffering a heart attack while on his way to give the homily at a funeral. He was 78. Father Lafontaine, who was on site to lead the funeral service, gave him his last rites.
The sudden death sent communities across Montreal reeling. Still there was some comfort that only the Thursday before, at a virtual event to raise funds for the latest of Nazareth Community’s three residences – this one named John’s Place in his honour – he got to hear testimonials from people who loved him, including musician Sam Roberts, comedian Joey Elias and former prime minister Paul Martin.
“Not long after I was elected in LaSalle, I walked with him in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade, a brand new MP who soon learned that no matter where we were, people kept rushing up to give him a hug,” Mr. Martin recalled. “Later, a friend of mine came up to me and said he’d overheard conversations in which people were wondering, ‘Who is the guy with Father John?’ ”
At the news of his death, Paperman & Sons, the Jewish funeral home, devoted a page to his passing. Scores of tributes, stories and memories poured in, some just a few lines, some much longer.
“Who else had such an impact?” funeral home director Ross Paperman asked. “We live in a time when inclusivity is not something you see every day and he lived and breathed that. Our late father used to say, ‘The world is my congregation, every man is my brother and to do good is my religion.’ That embodies who Father John was.”
Mark Kisiel, a resident at Nazareth House for the past nine years, was even more succinct: “He made me feel like heaven is looking out for us.”
John Emmett Walsh was born in Montreal on Aug. 29, 1942. His father, Emmett Sarsfield Walsh, was a travelling salesman while his mother, Margaret Bridget (née Quinlan) Walsh, was a tireless fundraiser for the Federation of Catholic Charities.
The family lived near Jarry Park in Villeray, a rough-and-tumble working-class neighbourhood where John and his big sister, Marlene, Irish to the core, played with kids from the Italian and francophone communities. By his own admission, he was a bit of a hellion but still he served as an altar boy at the local Holy Family Parish.
At 15, he graduated from high school, eventually pursuing his religious studies at what was then called St. Dunstan’s University on the northern outskirts of Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island. Inspired by the reforms of Pope John XXIII in the Second Vatican Council, and wanted to be part of a church that would be more modern and encompass all in its embrace. After completing his studies at the Grand Seminary in Montreal, on May 21, 1966, he was ordained by Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger, celebrating his mass in the same parish he served an altar boy and decided what his path would be in life. His first official appointment was as curate at the Resurrection of Our Lord parish in Lachine.
From the start, he believed that his work required more than the administering of sacraments and hearing confessions. In the wake of Vatican II, through a half-century of service and pastoral ministry that included terms as the episcopal vicar of St. Jean Longueuil Diocese, pastor of St. Monica’s Parish and finally, pastor of St. John Brébeuf in LaSalle, he was an activist priest who hewed to the principles that grounded his faith even as he sometimes drew the ire of the church establishment.
For example, Mr. Martin, a devout Roman Catholic, recalled that when Parliament passed legislation in 2005 to make same-sex marriage legal, while some in the church called for the prime minister, who had led the charge for equal rights, to be excommunicated, Father Walsh demurred and gave him communion.
“He believed that everybody had a place in the church,” Mr. Martin said. “When the media went to him, he said God loves everybody.”
As the host of a weekly radio program that explored issues of faith from all perspectives, as the force behind the Nazareth Community, as president of the local Kiwanis Club, as chaplain from 1966 to 1968 of Lachine’s police and fire departments, as a former president of both the Missing Children’s Network of Canada and Catholic Community Services, he was indefatigable. Each year, he would host a celebrity golf tournament that to date has raised nearly $1-million for Nazareth House, and he helped found an annual walk each Father’s Day to raise awareness of – and funds for – prostate cancer.
In 2016, he was the delighted Grand Marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, waving and laughing as people along the route called out his name.
Nearly two years later, in 2019, he was invested as a member of the Order of Canada, alongside Canadian luminaries such as actor William Shatner and hockey writer Red Fisher. Always humble (yet not a whit shy), he said at the time: “[As] I listen to the achievements of all who were presented before me, I wonder ‘What am I doing here?’ Only at the reception that followed did I hear other recipients ask the same question. It was consoling [and I was] so uplifted by the contributions of women and men in their concerns for their fellow human beings.”
Rare was the time he wore his clerical collar, instead preferring sports jackets and shirtsleeves so he could move more easily among different groups. But Alan Hustak, who helped the priest write his autobiography, God is Calling – Don’t Put Him on Hold, recalled that when Father Walsh was helping to co-ordinate Pope John Paul II’s trip to Montreal in 1984, he was prevented from boarding the Pope’s plane back to Rome until he put it on.
He was a social worker, a painter and sports fan who could wax as eloquent with teenagers about the fate of the Montreal Alouettes as he could about philosophical issues with the adults. Recently, he’d begun a PhD in theology at Concordia University because he knew he still had so much to learn and to offer.
In a statement, the Montreal Archdiocese noted: “Father John, as he preferred to be known, was an Irish-Catholic Quebecer and a dyed-in-the-wool Montréalais who sought to make a difference wherever he went. A people person, he engaged effortlessly and in the same friendly, reassuring way with politicians and pundits, with the marginalized and with the movers and shakers.”
When Mel Gibson’s controversial film, The Passion of the Christ, was released in 2004, Cantor Gideon Zelermyer of the Shaar Hashomayim synagogue in Westmount got a call from Father Walsh, who asked to borrow a Haggadah, a Passover plate and a wine goblet.
“Why?” the cantor asked.
“Because I’m having a seder,” Father Walsh replied. “Members of my community have asked me to demystify the customs of the Jews and that’s what I’m going to do.”
In the end, the two men did it together, and every year afterward, the priest attended the second seder at the Zelermyer home, reading his portion of the service in Hebrew that he’d learned in the mid-1970s when the church sent him to study in Israel. It was there, he explained in his autobiography, surrounded by the architecture, by the sounds and smells of an ancient civilization, that he “began to walk with a Jesus drawn from the depth of Jewish scripture.”
“[It] made me realize we are in a covenant, in a partnership with God, working together to make the world a better place.”
Father Walsh leaves his sister, Marlene Robitaille; his nieces, Deborah Graham and Laura Robitaille; his nephews, Raymond and Michael Robitaille; their spouses and their children.