“I grew up in the North end – near Jarry Park. We were an Irish Catholic family in a neighbourhood that soon had other immigrant families from Italy. It was a great place to grow up. I played baseball, hockey and football.” It was also where John learned to speak French and some Italian. Decades later, the boy who mixed it up with his North End club called The Spades is known to Montrealers as Father John Walsh, with a well-earned reputation of promoting understanding and respect amongst diverse religions.

Father John serves a huge congregation at St. John Brébeuf in LaSalle; where 1,200 to 1,500 parishioners gather on any given Sunday.

To accommodate the 2 Sunday services plus the one on Saturday, Father John told me that not only do they have a large choir, they have four choirs. The congregation also has 500 volunteers. Former Prime Minister Paul Martin calls St. John Brébeuf his home church, and Father John has become a close friend over the years.

His life and vocation have taken him a long way from the sports fields and rinks of Montreal North. “We wore Hollywood haircuts, brush cut on top and the longer sides swept back to a duck’s tail. White bucks and Perry Como cardigan sweaters…” John’s father sold food for Standard Brands, and frequently spent Monday to Friday on the road, visiting his customers in Eastern Ontario. “He had terrific people skills, as did my mother. I guess that’s where my ability to get along with people comes from.” John has an older sister Marlene with whom he was always very close. “We were brought up with a strong sense of family. My brother-in-law Tom died relatively young, and I’m close to my nieces and nephews. I’m very much part of their family.”

Young John started school at an early age – literally. “I was born in August, so while all my friends were starting school because they were five by June, the Principal told my Dad that I was too young.” However, Mr. Walsh’s persuasive people skills came into to play, and he convinced the principal to allow John to enrol with his friends.

“I started school when I was 4 and graduated from high school when I was 15, from university when I was 19.” John went on to complete his religious studies at St. Dunstan’s in Prince Edward Island and was ordained on May 21st, 1966.

“It’s a consciousness, a kind of awareness that comes over you – you can’t shed it. It’s part of you.”

“In ’69 I took a group of teenagers to travel through Europe. A colleague who was also taking a group suggested that I take one; and that we meet at the halfway point, coming from different directions.” It was a trip that would have a tragedy, and from that the young priest would experience first-hand the caring of a group of teenagers. “The travelling and sightseeing were tiring, and one evening a boy in my group lost his balance while sitting on a window ledge, falling to his death on the street below. “Everyone was pretty shaken up, but without asking, those teenagers gave me their money so that we could transport their friend’s remains home.”

Father John tells another fascinating story about a Korean man who escaped from the North to the south. Byong Mun Choi built a chicken coop, raised 1,500 chickens and sold them for a profit. He used the money to clean out the coop and transform it into a school for hearing impaired and children with mental illness. After meeting him on a visit to North America, Father John decided to take a youth group of 37 teenagers to Korea, to assist in the building’s transformation.

They needed funding, and in 1971, he met with Paul Martin Sr., then a Cabinet Minister in the Federal Government. Martin senior provided the $15,000 funding for the trip, which also included stops in Japan and other Asian countries. All this for $450 per teenager! “Many of those kids went on to successful careers; five became doctors, and one became the Chaplain General for the Canadian Armed Forces.” Father John’s voice softens as he continues; “I recently received an e-mail from one of the students who I hadn’t heard from in thirty years. He thanked me for taking him on that trip – for the positive effect it had on his life.” He smiles and says; “There’s that ‘consciousness’ again. You can have a positive impact on someone’s life without really knowing it at the time.” Continuing: “I took the kids to Ottawa when we returned to meet with Paul Martin Sr. He listened intently, wanting to hear everyone’s story.”

The ‘chicken coop’ is now the Centre for Mentally Challenged Children for all of Asia, and run by the late Byong Mun Choi’s son. A young Priest and 37 kids a half a world away helped out at the beginning…and lives were enriched.

“In 1972 I approached the Bishop and asked if I could go back to Korea, I wanted to see how they were doing and volunteer my assistance. He said that he had another project in mind for me, that he wanted me to go to Rome for three years to study Scriptures.” This was an important opportunity and assignment for a young priest.

Father John was still concerned about the progress of the school in Korea, so his superior suggested that he do both – go back to Korea before heading over to Italy.

During the fall of 1973, Father John was just finishing his first term’s Scripture courses when another travelling opportunity was presented itself. There was a post-war student exchange between Italy and Israel. “I was given the opportunity to accompany the students on the exchange which would start in February and continue to October. I had to have my exams before we left, and miss two semesters while we were in Israel. I had three weeks to learn basic Hebrew before departing.”

He was up to the task, and it proved to be the beginning of Father John’s interest in bridging the gap between other faiths. “We have different religions and cultures, but we all recognize one God. How can it be that He has different compartments for all the different religions? We share a reasonably common vision of God, it’s up to us to get along better and recognize that maybe we have more in common than we thought.”

Father John generously volunteers his time, intellect and indefatigable energy. In addition to his parish duties, he has been involved in Kiwanis, becoming President in 1966. He served on the Board of the YMCA. He was Chaplain of the Police Department and Firefighters in Lachine from 1966 to 68; and then Chaplain of the schools in Dorval from 1968 to 1973. “We had 85 kids in a folk choir. Fourteen of them taught themselves how to read music from books because we didn’t have a choir director – so they did it themselves.” The choir became so accomplished that they were asked to be the opening act for Ginette Reno at one of her concerts.

Upon his return to Montreal in ’76, Father John worked for two years at The Bible Centre downtown, publishing the newsletter Discover The Bible. In 1978 he went to Ville Emard, and then in 1983 to the South Shore where he was the Episcopal Vicar for 13 Parishes. While living in St. Lambert, Father John’s interest in art was re-ignited, and with the encouragement of a parishioner, he began to paint again, a hobby that he still enjoys.

He also became involved in a committee for Christian-Jewish Dialogue. “I became much more involved with the Jewish community, and the fact that I spoke pretty good Hebrew helped. I’m a much better person as a result of my association with the Jewish community.” In his customary straightforward manner, Father John explains further; “I’m working for a subsidiary company. All of our liturgy comes from the Jewish faith – they were there before we were. I gained a deeper understanding of our own Scriptures after studying theirs.”

Father John returned to Montreal to serve at St. Monica’s in NDG, before moving to St. John Brébeuf in LaSalle, where he has worked for 10 years. At 68, he doesn’t have firm plans to retire, and is concerned that there are so few young men in the priesthood coming along to fill his and other priests’ places as they retire. However, I have the impression that Father John is too busy to consider retiring anytime soon…

For the past 14 years he has maintained a weekly Sunday broadcast on CJAD from 6 – 7 pm. It is the #1 rated show on AM radio in that time slot. “People will often come up to me at functions and say that they recognized my voice from CJAD, but they didn’t know what I looked like.” Father John invites guests onto his show, and he is particularly fond of an annual pre-Christmas broadcast with Ranee Lee and her husband and guitarist, Richard Ring.

“Once a year we invite people of other faiths to visit our parish and share a worship service. We’ve had two Holocaust survivors preach to our congregation; we’ve invited members of a Sikh congregation; and Aboriginal folks from Kahnawake have also joined us. They have all reciprocated by inviting us to visit with them.” The goal is to promote better understanding and therefore tolerance.

“We need to reclaim humanity. What’s the point of building a church of worship and then saying that other peoples can’t worship with us?”

Father John reaches out beyond his own congregation to assist others. He’s past President of the Board of Missing Children’s Network Canada and also immediate past President of Catholic Community Services (CCS). The Father John Walsh Celebrity Golf Tournament (12th year 2010) has raised almost $ 400,000 for Nazareth House, a residence and outreach to street adults. Father John is Honorary President of Nazareth House. In December he will be hosting his annual Christmas lunch for 500 disadvantaged people.

Along with Robin Burns and Jean Pagé, Father John has assisted in organizing the Father’s Day “Walk of Courage” to raise funds for prostate cancer research. “Over the past 3 years we’ve raised over $600,000. We had 1,200 walkers last year and we’re aiming for 2,000 participants this June.”

And so he goes… After a lengthy interview with The Montrealer, Father John attended an evening B’nai B’rith Gala where Gerry Weinstein received the Award of Merit… and was congratulated by a Catholic Priest. He recently accompanied Holocaust survivor, author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel when he visited Montreal. Father John was amongst just 24 invited guests for lunch with the Dali Lama. He was active in support of Adil Charkoui, who had been wrongly arrested by the Canadian Government as a security risk. “If we act alone – our voice isn’t heard. The minute its inter-faith; it becomes a Canadian voice that the political class will acknowledge.”

In 2005, he was in Rome with his sister Marlene when Pope John Paul II died; and Father John did a live broadcast for CJAD and CFRB in Toronto, in addition to being interviewed for The National on CBC. “I recorded Ruth Ann Mahaffey’s poem A Letter From Heaven, and it has had over 105,000 hits on You Tube.”

Father John Walsh is an exceptional person – a man of many talents. His golf clubs sit not far from his painter’s easel; and just across the way from St. John Brébeuf where people fill the pews to capacity several times a week to celebrate their Faith and share in helping others. Father John sets the example, encouraging his 500 volunteers, and reaching out to other religious communities and cultures to share our common humanity. Montrealers are fortunate to have him in our midst.

Father John Walsh can be heard on Sunday evenings from 6 – 7 pm on CJAD, 800 AM. St. John Brébeuf Parish is located at 7777 George Street, LaSalle: 514-366-0131 or visit www.johnbrebeuf.ca