In the spring of 1964, my family and I left our home in semi-rural Oak Ridges, Ont., to move to the big city. This made me sad, as I was happy there, with many friends and lots of freedom.
My father had accepted a new job. But at eight years of age, I did not understand the particulars of his new big-city parish, and certainly not what “skid row” meant.
Soon we settled into a red-brick semi-detached on a leafy street in north Toronto. School was nearby, and there was a big park with an outdoor pool. Venturing out, I became a fan of the rapidly expanding TTC subway. Life was good again.
Meanwhile my father, Rev. Gordon Winch, left home daily for work downtown at St. Luke’s United, a big, once-prosperous church at the corner of Carlton and Sherbourne Streets. A sign on his new office read: Padre of the Pubs. This was in mid-1960s Cabbagetown, a tough, poor, mostly white neighbourhood full of large public-housing towers — long before the 1980s brought condos, yuppies and fancy coffee shops.
The park across Sherbourne Street from the church was full of grizzled men, often carrying a bottle in a bag. Or panhandling for coins to get one. Flophouses, hostels and drinking places littered the main drags of the central city.
This was Dad’s new urban parish. He was not the first on this downtown beat: Rev. Arthur Packman, who had served as a chaplain in the British army, started visiting bars in 1960. After Packman’s death in 1964, the United Church set up a committee to explore how to continue his work. My father sat on this committee then eagerly volunteered to step into Packman’s role.
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Dad often went out in the evening, which felt a bit odd, but by the time he returned home, I was long asleep. Soon there were articles about him in the papers: “The man who drinks ginger ale in a pub,” read one headline I saw. Another newspaper photo showed Rev. Winch wearing his clerical collar, sitting in a tavern under the neon lights, chatting with a man drinking beer from a stubby-necked bottle. This was all very different from home. There was no alcohol in our house; a pious country boy, Dad had rarely tasted beer.
Over dinner, we sometimes overheard parents’ conversations about ominous-sounding places – the Don Jail, the Scott Mission, Milhaven and Kingston penitentiaries – places that I never heard about in my North Toronto schoolyard.
Occasionally, a favourite of Dad’s from men’s walk-in visits to his downtown office, like “Kenny,” came by for dinner at home, even once on Christmas Day. Kenny, like many of his new “parishioners,” was good-humoured and charming, an old guy with a red nose, raspy voice and working-man hands. But he met all types in bars. One lighter anecdote Dad liked to tell involved a chance encounter. A man saw Dad in a tavern, furtively approached him and whispered: “Don’t tell anyone you saw me here … I am a church organist.”
That was the mission: just meet people, talk and listen. No proselytizing, just make contact. The parable of the Good Samaritan always appealed to Dad. (Still does today, at 93.) Reach out to help people, no matter their circumstances.
He strongly felt that, when people fell on hard times, they felt needlessly demoralized. He had a radio spot on CFGM, where I listened to him sometimes. I am sure I heard him say he felt shocked at “how much unnecessary suffering people cause themselves because they are afraid to ask someone to think through their difficulties with them.”
But talking face to face on their terms means meeting people in late-night haunts. This takes a toll on families.
Dad was out late many evenings, although he rarely missed a dinner at home or a bedtime story. Some cases seemed to weigh on him, as “friends” he met on the street regularly got in trouble. I heard him say over dinner that he had seen men in pubs sell their coat in mid-January to get money for another few beers. Or shake his head mentioning people who drank rubbing alcohol straight off of the shelf at the pharmacy. It seemed like another world for me, a carefree kid playing softball in my schoolyard.
It was perhaps no surprise, then, that after five years of urban outreach that tested family life, Dad moved on to a Samaritan-inspired telephone hotline, the Distress Centre. Again, mostly listening to people. But this time no beer, no loud music, bartenders or neon.
Still, I wondered sometimes if he missed all that.
David Winch is a writer/editor based in North Hatley, Que.
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