Tough love

Catholic Workers take in the poor, but sometimes they're afraid to answer the door

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Toronto is not what you’d call a mecca of radical countercultural lifestyles. Here, we tend to think buying a condo in a converted warehouse is alternative. In the midst of this monied city, with its premium real estate and single-family obsessions, the Catholic Worker’s wacked-out experiment in household communism is somehow redeeming.

I walk into their Parkdale home one night while dinner is in progress and watch the way these followers of radical Catholic Dorothy Day handle the aggravations and the charms of charity.

Round table

There are nine people, including two children, sitting at a big, round table overflowing with food — a huge pot of vegetarian chili and two trays of shepherd’s pie.

Jim Loney looks at me with a slight hint of embarrassment. “We don’t usually make this much food for dinner,” he chuckles.

The reason for the large chowdown, and the excitement, is that 15 members of the Grassy Narrows First Nations band from Thunder Bay arrived at the door the night before to protest clear-cutting on their land. And they’re heading back here tonight.

In telling about where everyone managed to sleep last night, Loney’s black eyes are shining. He makes me think of the proprietor of a small restaurant who’s simply thrilled that people have actually come to dine.

Having needy people show up at the door unannounced seeking shelter or food is what this place is supposed to be about. Like those who ran Day’s “House of Hospitality” in Depression-era New York, and those that run the 150 houses across the U.S today, Toronto’s Catholic Worker folk are committed to an unrelenting sharing of their space.

For this loose community of 17 people who, along with about 15 formerly homeless people, have created a mini-village in a cluster of houses at the foot of Close Avenue, the spirit is willing although sometimes the personality suffers.

My first exposure to the Catholic Worker movement came in the early 80s, when my childhood friend Charlie Angus left the band we’d co-founded, L’Etranger, to start a Catholic Worker house with his wife

In fact, during a particularly illustrious time of couch-surfing, I ended up living in the house for a month myself, sharing a room with a few guys who in another era would have been called drifters.

Growing up as Angus and I had in suburban Catholic families, influenced as much by the Clash as by American Catholic anti-war activists Dan and Phillip Berrigan, the Catholic Worker movement seemed like the real deal.

It was also hectic. By the time Angus and his wife, Lauren Griffen, closed up and moved to Cobalt in 1990, about 100 people had lived at their house over a seven-year period. “I thrived on the hectic pace, but you do get burned out,” says Angus. “In the first year we were robbed 10 times. When you’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to step back and get perspective.”

You’re also on display. I recall during my stay a seemingly endless stream of middle-class, suburban Catholic high-school students whose well-meaning teachers brought them to visit the house as a way of getting “closer to the poor.”

“There was always this inevitable tension over what we were there for — for people who needed a place to live or people looking for a field trip for their class,” says Angus.

But many of those who dropped by that earlier Catholic Worker house weren’t just there for a moment of vicarious rough living. A chance visit by Jim Loney changed his life. A slight, quiet guy whose dirty-blond hair is usually as dishevelled as his attire, Loney was attending the University of Windsor with childhood friends who, like him, were studying to be priests. They had invited a couple of homeless kids to live with them in their small apartment.

Exciting night

“We were living the Catholic Worker life without knowing it at the time,” says Loney. But when he finally heard about the Catholic Worker and went to visit the Toronto house, he says, “It was the most exciting night of my life.”

So just as Angus and Griffen were getting set to move on, Loney and his friends Dan Hunt and William Payne began their own Catholic Worker house downtown, and eventually moved it to Parkdale in 1991.

Now in its 10th year, the Toronto Catholic Worker runs a small bakery business, a quarterly newspaper, the Mustard Seed, and has recently started planning a small organic farm in Durham.

Its members, ranging in age from 18 to 63, aren’t all Catholic. Some are gay or lesbian. There are musicians, a poet, a priest, a farmer and a couple with one child.

Most have to work at least part-time to cover the costs of the community’s work. The 15 formerly homeless people are themselves a diverse group of refugees, psychiatric survivors, students and families with children.

This somewhat unruly organization isn’t without its tensions and delicate relationships.

In fact, the community is going through a particularly anxious time of instability right now following news that their landlord, the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute (formerly Queen Elizabeth Hospital), may move forward on plans to redevelop the land the group’s five houses sit on.

The small cluster of rundown houses were rented to the group to discourage vandalism. This benign neglect worked well for the Worker group, especially given the difficulties of finding large enough premises for an intentional community in the midst of T.O.’s real estate crunch. But the lack of accommodation options isn’t their only burden. They also face the active disapproval of the Toronto archdiocese.

Back when Loney first experienced Charlie Angus’s Catholic Worker house, he had already started questioning the priesthood. “The order I belonged to was far from the poor,” he laughs. “They had cooks and maids and full fridges.”

There was something else. “I was just beginning to realize I was gay, and I didn’t really want to hide from my sexuality in the priesthood,” he says. But it wasn’t going to be easy for Loney and his friends to be upfront about their sexuality in a Catholic Worker house either.

The fact that several members of this Catholic Worker, including the three founders, were gay or lesbian meant relations with some Catholic Worker houses in the U.S. were strained. (Dorothy Day was a resister of American militarism, butshe was also a sexual conservative.)

But perhaps more significantly, it made the community persona non grata with the local Catholic leadership.

Selling bread

“We were selling bread at several churches on Sundays to help us raise money, and after we made it known through our newspaper that we were gay-positive, we were told we couldn’t sell bread at these churches any more,” says Loney.

Suzanne Scorsone, the Toronto archdiocese’s engagingly blunt communications director, says that shouldn’t be a big surprise to anyone. “No organization that diverges from a significant teaching of the Church is going to be given access to parishes to fundraise,” she says.

There have been other run-ins. A few years ago, at the archdiocese’s annual big-money funder, which occurred on the heels of the Harris government’s 21-per-cent welfare cut and with the premier at the head table, William Payne, disguised in a tuxedo, went to the podium to make a plea for the poor. Amidst cries of “Shame on you!,” he was escorted from the banquet by security. Needless to say, the group receives no funding from the Church.

Michael Armstrong, a core member, is crouching down trying to help a three-year-old get his running shoes on. Armstrong, who has struggled with mental illness his whole life, first started visiting the Catholic Worker in 1993 and joined the community in 98.

“Consensus decision-making is very difficult, and you can’t avoid the petty jealousies and tensions that result when people who don’t know each other too well start living together,” he says. Nevertheless, Armstrong, who lives with three other members in a nearby apartment, says he’s in this for the long haul. “I have never been so utterly affirmed and welcomed as I am here.”

With its large and diverse membership, the Catholic Worker has attempted to balance political resistance and hospitality as best it can. Some members are very active in actions like native blockades and public protests. Others are more focused on the poor of Parkdale.

Feel alone

Member Verna Kemp, for example, plays church organ at funerals for people whose families don’t have the money to hire a musician.

But a couple of things don’t add up. Zacheus House — which is where I am — has five people living here plus one member, Liz Garrison. Next door is Room for Hope, which has 10 people plus community members Yvonne Jenson and Kemp. These are the original houses the Worker rented.

The rest of the community live in the other houses on this tiny strip. I start doing the math and realize that these three members must be doing the bulk of the “hospitality” work.

Although various members take turns making dinner, if the Catholic Worker is about welcoming the homeless into your home, it looks like few members do it. Garrison tells me later that the lack of focus among the members is an issue here.

“Sometimes I really feel alone in this, but the individuals in this community identify with different aspects of the Catholic Worker vision,” she says.

Garrison, a wisp of a girl, tells me about people who have, despite the drug-free rule, overdosed in the house, and that there have been several violent altercations when people were told they had to leave because they were drunk.

“Sometimes it is dangerous. But for me this is not a job, it’s a way of life — to be open to God in other people,” she says, and then pauses, “but some nights when there’s a knock on the door the last thing I want to do is answer it.”

As I get up to leave, the Grassy Narrows guests arrive back and help themselves to the waiting dinner. This isn’t a social service agency. No one here is called a “client.” It’s an odd, confusing and very cool place.

“All we do is try,” says Armstrong. “What is community anyway but people being mutually supportive?”

* “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

* “We love God as much as we love the one we love the least.”

* “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”


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