The Downtown Mission that Never Closed

Behind the red door at 137 President Kennedy Avenue, at the base of the big church with the red roof, there’s a place of support and of healing for the area’s people in need. They congregate outside the door, lounging on the sidewalk, chatting with each other on a sunny Thursday in downtown Montreal, almost in the shadow of Place des Arts.

By Colin McGregor

This is St. Michael’s Mission. It’s been on the same spot since 1950, helping people from a side entrance of an Anglican church, St. John the Evangelist.

File:Eglise St. Urbain (5184226069).jpg - Wikimedia Commons
St. John the Evangelist church, downtown Montréal

And they never closed for a single day because of Covid, the only soup kitchen in downtown Montreal to remain open throughout.

“At the height of the crisis, there was never a question of closing,” says Julie, an administrator at the Mission. “We rallied together. There was no twisting of arms. We all said we are going to do this.”

Even when two volunteers fell ill with Covid, the red door stayed open.

No sooner had Chantal, the Mission’s Executive Director since November 2019, been put in charge, the pandemic hit: “In this area there’s wasn’t even a place for people to get water, or go to the bathroom… If there’s food in my pantry I’m going to give it out. No one is going to die of starvation in Montreal… This place is mon petit bijou caché, my diamond in the rough.”

The Mission provides meals and snacks for what it calls its “client base.” As well, people can get clothing, razors, a haircut and other essentials. There is a nurse and social workers at hand, and volunteers who pour their heart into the place.   

New Needs

Chantal talks of the new clientele who came for help in 2020: “People we’d never seen before. Families. Young mothers who needed diapers, international students stuck here for several months, immigrants, we’re here to help everyone.”

But with a steep jump in need came an increase in community support. “We got new volunteers,” says Chantal. “The foundations that support us came together. They were calling me to see if we needed anything. There was so much kindness.”

One thing stopped because of Covid, for a while: the showers. But they’re back on now. “The day we reopened the showers, there was a standing ovation,” Julie says.

The Mission even managed to hold two vaccination clinics during the crisis. And there’s a computer available for use.  “The modern world is a lot more complicated,” Julie says. “More people are falling through the cracks. Our intervention workers help people get on RAMQ, or get a bank account.”

Night and Day

On this sunny Thursday, you would be excused for thinking that a university class was underway behind the red door. Many of the clients seem like fresh faced older students waiting for a teacher to stroll in. Groomed and cleaned up, perhaps thanks to the Mission’s hygiene facilities.

But the situation is not so sunny for many. There aren’t enough shelter beds to house the increasing numbers of homeless in Montreal. Some of the clients live day and night on the streets and don’t necesarrily like to sleep in shelters because “there are too many rules,” says Allan, who helps out at the Mission.

Julie estimates that 80% of the clientele is bilingual, just as one would expect of downtown Montreal. Many are indigenous persons. “People from all over the world come here. The cooks are Brazilian!”    

The day I came, a samaritan from the West Island brought in a load of clothes and books to be distributed.

While he was still there, I asked Julie where they would move to next. The church is for sale, and the land the church sits on is the sort of real estate envied by condo developers.

They’re looking for new premises, but not too far away. “There will always be something for our clients in this area,” she vowed. “This is their home.”

Chantal says they’re looking at a nearby property three times the size of their current premises, and cross your fingers that they’ll be able to sign a deal. “We need to be able to grow,” she says. “We need a bigger place, to offer more services, a place to sleep. Some of our clients are ready for that, they want to get back into society. We can give them the tools to get back – we want to show them the way. We have success stories, people who spread their wings and get out of their situation.”

But new premises won’t come cheap, Chantal admits. “There are some not great buildings in this area, and even for them, prices are rising very fast!”

When the church is sold, St. Michael’s Mission will have 6 months to move. But regardless, the Mission will carry on. “We see the need every day,” says Chantal. “We can’t say no to that.”

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