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Father Emmett Johns initially had his sights set on a life in China before finding his calling assisting people on the streets of Montreal.Marcos Townsend/The Globe and Mail

When he was a teen, Emmett Johns had dreams of becoming a missionary in China. He did enter the priesthood, but it was in the streets and parks of Montreal that he found his mission, as a selfless saviour of the runaways, the homeless and the squatters.

He gave them coffee, hot dogs and moral support during the coldest, bleakest nights, patiently lending an ear to their tales of troubles, gently nudging those he could towards a better life.

Father Johns, who was usually known as Pops, died on Saturday. He was 89.

The charity he started, Le Bon Dieu dans la rue, confirmed his death, but did not specify the cause. He had retired a decade ago and had been suffering from Parkinson's disease.

He was mourned by prominent people – such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, who all paid tribute to his years of service – and by scores of men and women he had led out of trouble.

"Pops was there, just there to help us," Jen Gagnon, who met him when she was a homeless teen and credits him with helping her go back to school, recalled in an interview.

Those who had crossed his path recalled his unorthodox, can-do attitude that always gave priority to the needs of the youth who came seeking help.

Tim Raybould, who was an employee, recalled one morning when two street kids came in carrying a dog.

Dogs are important companions to many homeless youth, their only company and protection. The youth informed Mr. Raybould that a car had hit the dog and a veterinarian requested $500 to treat the animal.

"I want to help you, but I don't have $500," Mr. Raybould said.

Father Johns overheard the conversation and pulled Mr. Raybould aside. "Who are you? What are you doing here?" he asked.

"Pops, you know me, I work here," Mr. Raybould replied.

"You haven't even tried. How can you say you work here?" Father Johns said.

He then got Mr. Raybould to find a veterinarian willing to work for free.

Now a case manager helping seniors in a Montreal community clinic, Mr. Raybould said that conversation forever changed the way he approached work.

Another man said he would not be alive today if he had not met Father Johns one night in 1994.

The man, who asked that his name not be published because some relatives do not know about his past addictions, said he was a teen hooked on opioid pills when Father Johns took him aside and, after several lengthy conversations, gave him a measure of self-confidence and persuaded him to change his life. The man is now an outreach worker, helping homeless people.

The man and Ms. Gagnon said Father Johns had a deft way of talking with street kids that was non-judgmental and made them trust him.

He did not mind if they cussed. He handed out condoms and cigarettes without asking questions. If he met panhandlers who were sitting on the ground, he would squat down before talking to them so they would be at the same level.

"I'm not a Boy Scout," he wrote in his 1997 autobiography, Pops on the Street. "I'm just an old priest, wandering about at night, in search of his lost sheep."

In the book, he described how during his childhood, he and his sister, Frances, discovered that their mother was buying more groceries than the family needed and discreetly giving them to needy neighbours or friends. "That's the way things were done – simply, without fanfare. We helped each other. No question asked."

The great-grandchild of Irish immigrants, he was born in Montreal on April 3, 1928, the younger of the two children of Matthias Johns, a stevedore, and Mona Guilfoyle, a housewife.

He grew up in the Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood, going to English school but learning French in the streets. He said his mother was pious, but he himself was not particularly religious until he was 17, when missionary priests speaking at his school "succeeded in lighting a flame in my heart. … I wanted action in my life. I wanted to become a priest – a missionary priest."

"I'm joining up," he told his father, who was upset only because he mistakenly thought young Emmett had enlisted in the military.

With dreams of working one day in China, he spent three years at seminary school in Ontario, but performed so poorly he was expelled.

However, he persevered and – after earning a degree in theology from the University of Montreal – he was ordained in 1952. For more than three decades, he was a priest at parishes in Montreal and a hospital chaplain.

By the time he turned 60, he felt restless and wanted to reach beyond traditional places of worship. He told the Montreal Gazette in 1990 that traditional pastoral work made him feel like a gas-station jockey, providing his flock with a spiritual "fill-up" each Sunday.

In an interview he gave to Journal de la rue in 1992, he recalled that he was driving one day when he heard a radio report about an outreach project in Toronto that used a van.

So he got a $10,000 personal loan from a credit union, bought a used Winnebago and recruited some volunteers. On a foggy Saturday night in December, 1988, he began parking the motor home at spots known as hangouts for street kids, offering warmth, food and coffee.

At first, only a handful came, but word got out that Pops cared, and within two years, more than 100 people would be fed each night.

Dans la rue eventually got a new vehicle and expanded to include an emergency shelter called the Bunker, as well as Chez Pops, a day centre.

Ms. Gagnon, who was living in shelters or on friends' couches, said it was thanks to Father Johns' support and help from resources at Chez Pops that she returned to high school and eventually went to university. Because she was on welfare, Father Johns bought her school books and supplies.

She said she cried all day when she got news of his death during the weekend, especially after she learned that Father Johns had told her mother to make sure to praise her the day of her graduation.

"He understood us," she said. "He gave us dignity."

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