By Kathy Murtha

The following article appeared in Scarboro Missions magazine, September 2018, the final magazine edition, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Scarboro Foreign Mission Society.

In the spring of 1973 two social justice advocates visited Scarboro Missions. Janet Somerville, a Catholic, and Charles Hendry, an Anglican, were there to engage the community in an ecumenical exploration of the meaning of mission today. Janet described being welcomed at the door by two “gentle returned missionary priests,” Frs. Clair Yaeck and Joseph Curcio. 

“We joined them for lunch and encountered a remarkable sign of this community’s willingness to share. In the dining room, along with a dozen or so priests were a few young couples with small children. They were temporarily homeless. They had come to the seminary and said, ‘Can we stay here?’ and the Scarboro priests said, ‘Sure.’ If every group practiced that kind of uncalculating Christian hospitality the church in Canada would have a different reputation—a much more attractive one!” 

Turning crisis into opportunity

Sheltering the homeless was just one of the innovative ways that Scarboro priests and seminarians made use of a mostly empty seminary after the sudden and drastic decline in vocations to the priesthood in the late 1960s. In the summer of 1972, the Holy Ghost Fathers used the facilities to prepare a group of VICS (Volunteers International Christian Service) lay candidates for overseas work, setting a pattern for future use of the building. During this experimental time the seeds of the Mission Centre, as we have come to know it, were sown. 

 In April 1973 Jack Lynch made a proposal for utilizing space in the Mary Monaghan Wing and on the lower floor of the original seminary building. He proposed establishing a centre to be used primarily by Scarboro Missions for the purpose of mission awareness and education. It would also be available to a wide variety of parish, youth and community groups, including Development and Peace, Youth Corps, the Catholic Women’s League, and Alcoholics Anonymous, and to Protestant Church members and Catholic religious working for social justice. Fr. Jack insisted on keeping the rates low so that cost would not prohibit groups from making the Mission Centre their gathering place. Throughout its history the Centre remained on the lower end of the cost scale. 

At the end of this critical proposal, Jack wrote, “I realize that there is risk involved, but I firmly believe that we can make a definite go of it, be consistent with our purpose and provide a contribution to the Canadian church.” 

The renovations were still underway for the new Mission Centre with Fr. Jack anxiously awaiting delivery of furniture when a group of sisters arrived, filling the place to capacity. A Cursillo group of 59 women followed. Parish and school groups wanted to use the space and so did the ecumenical coalition Ten Days for World Development. It all snowballed by word of mouth. The need for such a meeting space was so keen that in its 44-year history the Mission Centre never required much advertising. 

United Farm Workers

In 1973 the Toronto Archdiocese asked Scarboro Missions to open its doors to the Mexican-American United Farm Workers from California who were part of the movement led by César Chávez. They had come to Ontario to promote a boycott of non-union picked grapes and lettuce. Alan King was in theological formation at the time and recalls the experience of being among these farm workers: 

“You should have seen them—young people and families, their first time so far from home but full of conviction for the cause they knew personally. I was present at their meeting with the Teamsters Union, which was also trying to organize the farm workers but had made deals with the farm owners. To see these simple workers, mostly of small stature, arguing toe to toe with mostly large, suited members of the Teamsters and their lawyers, was a scene I won’t forget. Davids can do battle with Goliaths.” 

Another seminarian involved in the boycott, Barry Blackburn, said, “We are not preparing for mission, we are in mission.”

For several years Scarboro Missions welcomed the farm workers, providing them with accommodation, resources, support, and a base from which to promote their just cause. They educated and engaged unions as well as Youth Corps groups, parish communities, high schools, and the wider community of Toronto. People responded by carrying placards and protesting in front of grocery stores to encourage shoppers to boycott non-union picked California grapes and lettuce. For many, like myself, this was our first experience in taking concrete political action for justice. Thanks to our teacher, Sister Elizabeth O’Connor, a few of us attending a small boarding school in the backwoods of Combermere, Ontario, were able to take part in the protest. We would hop into the school van on Friday evenings and head to the nearest grocery chain in the town of Barry’s Bay. Sister Elizabeth was also responsible for shutting down classes upon the death of President Salvador Allende of Chile so that we could study and reflect on the historic events that were occurring there.  

The Chilean community

In the aftermath of the September 1973 military coup in Chile, Scarboro missioner Fr. Buddy Smith and two other church leaders, George Cram of the Anglican Church and Quebec foreign missionary Francois Lapierre (later bishop of St. Hyacinthe, Quebec), went to Chile to meet with prisoners and torture victims, as well as those evading arrest. They did interviews and got agreement from individuals and families and, ultimately, Canadian government officials, to allow those in danger to come to Canada. 

In January 1974, the first influx of refugees arrived at Toronto airport. A convoy of vehicles driven by Scarboro priests and friends went to gather the 173 arrivals and bring them back to the central house. Michael O’Hearn provided this touching memory: 

“They were a wretched lot. We, Scarboro seminarians and priests, were waiting for their arrival in the big hall we called the refectory. (These were) ordinary men and women from Chile targeted for God knows what kind of treatment because they had openly opposed the military’s violent overthrow of their democratically elected government. Now, all these years later, it’s still the children I see—infants, toddlers and young kids, utterly bewildered, clinging to their Moms and Dads as they entered this strange new environment. Or so I thought, until some entertaining six-year-old in a pair of ill-fitting rubber boots made a beeline for a plate of cookies she’d spotted. She grabbed one and rammed it into her mouth, an action that did not go unnoticed by the other kids. Next thing I knew the sounds of children munching, gulping and giggling filled the room. Tired adults got their second wind, many laughing uncontrollably as they watched their little locusts go to it. Gloom and misery got the rest of the night off, thanks to the kids in the hall.” 

Bob Carty and Frances Arbour, both active in the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America, were always on hand to greet refugees and bring them back to Scarboro Missions to be housed and fed until they could be billeted. And for many years the Chileans returned to the Mission Centre for their liturgies and community meetings. 

As I write this, the Scarboro community is preparing to move. The property at 2685 Kingston Road is sold and the building is being emptied. Yet even now, the main socializing space in the Mission Centre is still adorned with curtains embroidered with a beautiful Peruvian design. For years these were cleaned, ironed and rehung with care by Ana Maria Opazo and her sister Maria Silva. The sisters, along with Tejualda Narvaez and Juanita Mesias, fled Chile all those years ago and found hospitality, community and employment as cleaning staff at Scarboro Missions. They helped to make the central house and the Mission Centre warm and welcoming.

Programming and challenges

When Fr. Jack left for mission in Peru in December 1974, Fr. Ray O’Toole took charge of the Centre. He continued to implement the founding vision, setting up a series of lectures and meetings on “Mission Today.” In 1975 Fr. Clair Yaeck took the reins and Janet Somerville was hired part-time to help create program for the Centre. Together they organized retreats and initiated an ecumenical Scripture study program with a local United church. 

After a chance encounter with then Archbishop of Toronto Aloysius Ambrozic, Janet wrote the archbishop to say that Scarboro hoped the Mission Centre would be increasingly useful to lay Catholics. “The existence of this place is a sign of hope,” she said, “because it’s a Catholic institution that is unguarded, undefensive, hospitable and uncalculating, open to refugees and transients, welcoming to people who can’t speak English and ready to help people…”

Janet added, “A lively sense of the international, intercultural scope and challenge of the Gospel has always been part of ‘mission awareness’ in the church.” 

Throughout the years, the vitality of the Centre’s programming ebbed and flowed. In a 1978 report, Fr. Clair put his finger on the dilemma that marked the Mission Centre throughout its history: 

“We have not operated very many of our own programs and we have had problems in trying to create programs. Yet, we have not worried too much about it because the Centre is in use almost every weekend and more and more during the week as well. We are meeting our objectives by having contact with hundreds of people each year and sharing who we are and what we are about.” 

While the Society was keen on developing its own mission programming, there was not the Scarboro missioners or existing staff available to do this work. As well, programs would have to be planned and dates set at least a year in advance to allow for the increasing number of groups wanting to book meeting rooms and accommodation at the Centre. This proved consistently difficult. 

It became necessary to hire someone to manage the bookings and do the programming. One of those was Ken Fletcher (1982-1990) who expressed the familiar concern: it was too much to oversee the functioning of the Centre and at the same time develop and implement mission education programs. Frequent discussions took place about hiring another person to focus solely on programming so as to uphold the Centre’s primary purpose. One result was the part-time hiring of Janet Conway who implemented two 1989-1990 programs: “Organizing Popular Theology” for Christian social activists; and “Affirming Committed Teachers” for a group of Catholic high school teachers. 

A vision realized

There was always the hope that the Mission Centre would be, as Jack Lynch said in 2004, “a creative space” where we could enter into “dialogue fearlessly, with openness and a conviction that we will be under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” 

As coordinator of the Mission Centre I had a taste of realizing that hope. For the final 12 years of the Centre’s remarkable history, we drew on a core group of facilitators to develop and present new programs. Prominent among these efforts were the interfaith Golden Rule retreats each year. We collaborated with 35 Catholic high schools as part of their World Religions course and reached four to five thousand students. 

With the help of Dwyer and Sheila Sullivan we developed programming to meet the debriefing needs of young people returning from overseas experiences among the poor. 

Programming was also developed for adult education including teacher-staff development days with an emphasis on social justice and ecological issues. In responding to the deep hunger for faith and spirituality, Fr. Dave Warren developed and presented a series each year on Scripture and on Catholic Social Teaching. As well, an Advent and Lenten series explored and practiced the contemplative dimension of Christianity. This was also the focus of two weekly gatherings—Centering Prayer and John Main’s Christian Meditation. 

Scarboro’s Department of Interfaith Dialogue also hosted large public teaching and prayer events at the Mission Centre in collaboration with other faith traditions and local houses of worship. These were part of that department’s mandate to broaden people’s understanding of the interfaith dimension of mission.

It is uncanny how well Fr. Jack Lynch’s vision spelled out in the founding proposal so many years ago could be recognized not only in the layout of the Mission Centre building, but also in the programming and the types of groups that made use of the Centre. Until the end, the Centre offered a warm, inviting meeting space at a reasonable price. In that alone it was a rare gem in the great metropolis of Toronto.

Fr. Gerry Curry, two-time editor of Scarboro Missions magazine and a former director of the Mission Information Department, worked tirelessly to promote mission in Canada. He and other Scarboro personnel and associates formed the Central Mission Conference, which held annual conferences from 1991 to 2001 at the Mission Centre as well as at other locales. Facilitators included Adrian Dominican Sister Maria Riley, a leader in the global women’s movement, and now retired from her work at the Centre of Concern in Washington; and Richard Rohr, Franciscan founder and animator of the Centre of Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

Fr. Curry said, “We did the best we could to break open the Gospel for our time. Some people didn’t like it, including some of our own members at times. But what was beautiful about Scarboro Missions was that we let it happen and allowed things to blossom.”∞