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.”