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Concordia community mourns the passing of Father Emmett ‘Pops’ Johns

Alumnus and former parish priest, who founded Dans la rue three decades ago, was guardian angel of homeless youth
January 15, 2018
By Sue Montgomery

If all priests took the words of Jesus to feed the poor and house the homeless as literally as did Father Emmett Johns, BA 74, LLD 97, the world would likely be a much better place.

On January 13, 2018, Father Johns died. He was 89.

Father Emmett Johns Father Emmett Johns established Dans la rue in 1988. The Montreal-based charitable organization offers resources and services for homeless youth. Photo: Concordia University

At 60, after 40 years of serving as a priest in various Montreal parishes, Father Johns started feeling less fulfilled by his church duties. So at a time when most people are preparing for retirement, he borrowed $10,000, bought a second-hand Winnebago and hit the streets to hand out food and comfort to those who needed it.

Today, close to 30 years after the Concordia graduate founded Le Bon Dieu dans la rue, the ecumenical organization is thriving as an emergency shelter, youth centre, medical clinic, school and 17-unit apartment building. It provides counselling to young parents, psychological help, employment guidance and, perhaps most importantly, friendship. It has literally saved thousands of lives.

“My heart is full of hope for these youth,” Father Johns, known to everyone as just “Pops,” once said.

“I know very well that there are limits to what I can do. I can’t save them all. But when I think of Lise, Johnny, Daniel, Molly and so many others, I realize that after every dark and difficult night — even the worst ones — there is a new day and a morning filled with hope.”

“Father Johns was certainly a Great Concordian — and also a great Montrealer and Canadian, a truly inspirational figure,” says Concordia President Alan Shepard. “He selflessly committed himself to the less advantaged. Over nearly three decades, tens of thousands of young people have benefitted from Father Johns’s vision and commitment to the community.”

“Father Johns took the Jesuit educational philosophy of ‘a man for others’ to higher level. We all mourn his loss,” says Bram Freedman, Concordia’s vice-president of Advancement and External Relations. “Although he has sadly passed on, fortunately his outstanding legacy will continue.”

“He destigmatized the problem of homeless youth,” Étienne Lalonde, a spokesperson for Dans la rue, told the Montreal Gazette. “Before Pops, no one talked about it.”

From simple beginnings

Order of Quebec Father Emmett Johns was named a Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec in 2003. | Photo: National Order of Quebec

In his later years, Father Johns could certainly have been included in lists of prominent Montrealers, along with Oscar Peterson and Leonard Cohen. Yet he came from simple beginnings.

He was born in Montreal April 3, 1928, to Irish immigrants Mona Guilfoyle and Matthias Johns, a longshoreman who worked out of the Port of Montreal.

He grew up with his older sister, Mary Frances, on Resther St., between St. Hubert and St. André streets in Montreal’s Plateau district.

Even though he was born just before the Depression, he said he wasn’t affected by it. In fact, in his biography They Call Me “Pops” (2011), he claims the family was rather spoiled with a backyard, their own home and even a car.

His stay-at-home mother attended mass every morning, while his father said going once a month was enough for him. Father Johns became interested in the priesthood while attending high school, yet dreamed of being a missionary.

He worked as chaplain to a detention home for young women and a youth-protection centre in Montreal’s West Island between 1959 and 1967.

Victims of youth protection system

When he established Dans la rue in 1988 he became somewhat of a saviour to the kids who end up on the streets — many of whom have been stuck in the revolving doors of foster care until age 18, when they’re expected to suddenly fend for themselves with virtually no safety net.

Many turned to the readily identifiable white Dans la rue van where, for many years, the cherubic face with the white goatee of Father Johns was a welcome site. He’d be there most evenings, in his ball cap and red woollen vest, along with some loyal volunteers until about 3:30 a.m., handing out hotdogs, hot drinks, clothing, counselling and love to up to 350 homeless youth on any given night.

There were struggles in those early days. At one point, Father Johns worried the Winnebago would be yanked off the street when its insurance wasn’t renewed because of too many claims. Once its driver accidentally crashed into a building and another time it was struck by a car running a red light.

1997 Concordia bestowed an honorary degree on Father Emmett Johns, third from left, in 1997. Photo: Concordia University

Always humble, Father Johns was perplexed when he was awarded the Order of Quebec in 2003, along with 30 others.

“When they named the various other people, I thought, ‘I don’t know how they got me into that group,’” Father Johns said at the time he accepted his award in the ornate Salon rouge of the National Assembly, along with notable artists, scientists and academics.

In 2000, he had triple bypass surgery, a harsh wake-up call for the septuagenarian who had to start acting his age instead of 40. Like many heart patients, the aftereffects were hard to deal with and Father Johns struggled briefly with depression.

In his 70s, he had to accept a slower work pace and reduced his shifts on the overnight van to once every two weeks.

Loyola alumnus

Father Johns claimed never to have been very academic, even being kicked out from “an institute of higher learning,” as he cryptically called it.

Nonetheless, he earned his BA in theological studies in 1974 from Loyola College, one of Concordia’s founding institutions. When Concordia granted him an honorary degree in 1997, he said he was “delighted from the tips of the little bit of hair that I have down to my toes.”

Among his many other accolades, Father Johns was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1999 and received honorary degrees from Université du Québec à Montréal, McGill University and Saint Paul University in Ottawa. He was named a Great Concordian in 2014.

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