Historical perspective by Rev. Bill Jay, 2010

As Montreal City Mission (MCM) celebrates one hundred years of service in Montreal’s urban core, I find myself reflecting back on my own thirteen years as Executive Director, and the earlier fifteen years during which my predecessor, Rev. Egerton Armstrong, served as the United Church of Canada’s first full-time Superintendent of the Mission (1960-1975). In particular, I am struck by the rich history of MCM’s continually-evolving response to the challenges of the day, and the United Church’s own growing understanding of contextual and liberating theology over those years.

The journey on the road towards justice and empowerment (in my era described as “moving from charity towards justice”) drew strong inspiration, encouragement, and support from several sources.

On the national scene, training of, and support to, ordered ministry and lay personnel serving in urban core ministries such as Montreal City Mission, was provided through the Canadian Urban Training Project for Christian Service (CUT) and the Urban Core Support Network (UCSN). These ecumenical initiatives, beginning in the 1960’s, shaped a whole new generation of urban ministry practitioners whose analysis and approach to ministry was community-based and enabling of local leadership.

Locally, the Montreal Presbytery and its Church in Society Committee, along with the Presbyterial UCW, were keenly interested in encouraging and supporting this understanding of community ministry at Montreal City Mission. The then Board of MCM (1975), in seeking a candidate to replace its about-to-retire first full-time United Church Superintendent, sought applicants from among people with such training and experience in transformative ministry. (Fortunately I was one of those richly blessed with such formation and practitioner experience gained during the early 1970‘s while I was then Executive Director of Winnipeg’s North End Community Ministry.)
In response to MCM Board’s invitation to consider a call to succeed Rev. Egerton Armstrong, I returned to Montreal from Winnipeg where I was at that time Director of Planning and Research for the Manitoba Government Department of Education, in an era when then NDP government of the day was taking bold initiatives in opening educational opportunities for inner city residents, northern and remote communities, women, and First Nations peoples. Social Gospel and Manitoba NDP platforms of the day were often interchangeable!

With this broad base of church support, nationally and locally, we as a Board and staff beginning this chapter of MCM’s history in the mid-70’s, were able to develop exciting new initiatives in the Mission’s response to the needs of the community and its people. Among the examples of moving from a charity model to one of justice/empowerment was the reshaping of our ministry with “homeless” persons. Many United Church members in the Montreal area will recall Sunday nights at the Mission’s Men’s Service Centre over the old fish market on the Lower Main, where literally hundreds of homeless men would attend Sunday evening worship services, followed by the serving of sandwiches, desserts, and coffee by members of visiting UCW groups and their accompanying spouses drawn from churches throughout the Montreal Presbytery. The Centre was also open weekdays when clothing, counseling, and a lunch meal was provided to again hundreds of needy men. The numbers were seemingly endless, and the inevitable question would be asked, “what happens to these men when they leave the Centre with a sandwich and coffee, or a piece of recycled clothing?”

Our conversations with those who came to the Centre, and with other drop-in’s and hostels serving this population, led to a fuller understanding of the deeper challenges that face the “homeless”, especially the urgent need for decent, affordable, and supportive housing as a base from which to gain autonomy and control over their own lives. As other front-line day services were also available, the MCM Board opted to shift to a smaller-scaled drop-in centre, called “l’entente”, where participants themselves had a strong say in both activities and hours of opening, actively assisted in meal planning and preparation, and engaged in the Mission’s first self-governing, non-profit housing project on Laval Street. This latter initiative soon evolved into the hiring of a full-time housing worker position, which eventually spawned over 1,000 units of long-term, non-profit, supportive housing for low-income, hard-to-house, street-related people, as well as those living with mental health issues. (Paula Kline, current MCM Executive Director, was that pioneering housing worker. Today, Lorna Willey, Clerk of Session at St. James United Church, is the Assistant Director of one of those projects, Maison St. Dominique, which now houses over 75 residents at four locations.)
The Inner City Summer Day Camp (ICSDC), then an ecumenically-sponsored project of eight downtown churches, was also transformed in its orientation to an empowerment model. Its staffing was then largely drawn from among university students, mostly living in communities outside the urban core, for whom this milieu was an entirely new experience. A conscious initiative was undertaken to open these summer employment opportunities to young residents of the local community, and to providing continuous leadership training experiences and support in their filling of these positions. Not only did this provide badly-needed summer jobs for local low-income family students, but it developed promising new leaders and solid peer role models for day campers.

Along with the wide-spread support of the United Church constituency, both locally and nationally, there were numerous remarkable Board members, staff, and ministry interns who made all of these exciting years and developments possible. I think of Dr. Helen Hanna and Joy McKenzie, who came as UCW Presbyterial appointees to the MCM Board, and built and maintained strong support among local churches for the many changes that were being made in the shape of our ministry. We were blessed with creative, energetic, and caring staff, among them Paula Kline, who more than twenty-five years later continues her ministry at MCM. Many of our ministry interns - among them Craig Chapin, Christopher Ferguson, Diane Walker, Rob Oliphant, Barbara Bryce, Doug Norris, and Jesse Doyon - all went on in their subsequent ordained ministries much richer for their experience of journeying with “the Mission”. Marian Charles, librarian with the Montreal Children’s Library Branch housed in our building (Macdonald House), and later our Office Administrator, made her decision to become an ordained minister of the United Church based on the inspiration she received by being involved in this exciting, evolving ministry. Beverly Clark Santana, whom I first met as a young CGIT’er during my internship placement at MCM during the early 1960’s, and who later also served as MCM Office Administrator, has gone on to assume lay worship leadership and Presbytery lay representative roles in the Trinity-Anjou Pastoral Charge.

The Mission’s move into the historic St. James United Church building in December 2004 fulfilled the longtime dream of my predecessor, Reverend Egerton Armstrong, who as the newly-arrived Superintendent of Montreal City Mission in the early 1960’s, faced with the daunting task of relocating the Mission from its crumbling and decrepit quarters on rue de Bullion, first proposed relocating both Montreal City Mission, and Eglise unie St-Jean, to St. James. The church officials of the day flatly refused, and the Mission eventually relocated to a new building on rue St. Dominique (Macdonald House). The seeds were planted, however, and today both Montreal City Mission and the national United Church offices for the Ministries in French Unit are located under the roof of St. James!

I offer these reflections, both as a tribute to the moving of the Spirit among those of us who have had the privilege of serving in ministry at Montreal City Mission, and as encouragement to today’s Board and staff as they continue living out the vision of justice for all in the heart of this great city.

Reverend Bill Jay
Montreal (QC)