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Adieu to a Larger-Than-Life PriestAdieu to a Larger-Than-Life Priest

Adieu to a Larger-Than-Life Priest

Alan Hustak reports on the death and contrarian life of Montreal’s Father John Walsh, who began serving the Church as an altar boy while also a member of a street gang.

Alan Hustak
4 minute read

By his own admission, Rev. John Walsh, O.C. was a subversive Roman Catholic priest who at times seemed to be ministering everywhere, to all religious communities, in Montreal. 

Father Walsh, 78, died of a heart attack on November 9 as he prepared to celebrate a funeral Mass in Montreal. His own funeral was held this morning at St. John Brébeuf parish church in suburban LaSalle. 

Because of COVID restrictions, and the popularity he gained during 54 years as a priest in Montreal, the service was live streamed by the Archdiocese. The Episcopal Vicar for the English-speaking Faithful, Father Raymond Lafontaine, presided. Father Walsh’s lifelong friend, Father John Baxter, concelebrated the Mass.

“Fr. John, as he preferred to be known, was an Irish-Catholic Quebecer and a dyed-in-the-wool Montréalais who sought to make a difference wherever he went,” the Archdiocese said in statement. “A people person, he engaged effortlessly and in the same friendly, reassuring way with politicians and pundits, with the marginalized and with the movers and shakers.”

He did that, and so much more. He was a social worker, a champion of the downtrodden, a radio talk-show host, teacher at Concordia University and a lifelong community activist. Ministry, he once remarked, required multi-tasking and risk taking. 

“As a priest, my ministry could not be limited to the administration of the sacraments as the only way to receive God’s grace,” he wrote in his autobiography, God Is Calling, Don’t Put Him on Hold. “It was my mission to work with all people to bring about justice where there is injustice, to uphold human rights, to work for peace, but above all to preach and teach of a living God of mercy who was slow to anger and quick to forgive. We are no longer a triumphal Church, but a humble Church with all of its defects staring us in the face.”

John Walsh was born Aug 29, 1942, the son of a travelling salesman. His mother was a fundraiser for the Federation of Catholic Charities. He was raised with his sister in the working class Villeray district. As a teen, he was both a member of a street gang and a dependable altar server at Holy Family Parish. 

Influenced by the reforms of Pope John XXIII in the Second Vatican Council, Walsh entered the seminary in Prince Edward Island believing he would be part of a church that welcomed exploration and experimentation. He completed his studies at the Grand Seminary in Montreal, and in 1966 was ordained by Paul-Emile Cardinal Leger. His ministry, he said, was guided by St. Paul’s admonition that “Jesus comes to us in many guises. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers because you may be unaware that they are angels.” (Hebrews 13:2)

He was appointed Episcopal Vicar of St. Jean Longueil Diocese on the South Shore of Montreal, then became pastor of St. Monica’s Parish in Notre-Dame-de-Grace. He later served for 10 years as pastor at St. Jean Brébeuf. Among his widely varied accomplishments, Father Walsh was also a ventriloquist who sometimes used a dummy, introduced to his congregation as Uncle Bob, to help deliver his homilies.

In 1973, he was sent to study at the Pontifical Biblical Institute “The West Point of Catholic teaching’" in Rome and continued his studies at Hebrew University in Israel. The experience transformed him. 

As he put it: “I began to walk with a Jesus drawn from the depth of Jewish scripture, which made me realize we are in a covenant, in a partnership with God, working together to make the world a better place.” 

He was fond of saying that his middle name was Emmett, which sounds like the Hebrew word, “Emet,” meaning truth. In 1984 he co-ordinated Pope John Paul II’s visit to Montreal. It left him questioning the Vatican’s politics of secrecy and manipulation, and certain practices of the institutional Church. He was determined to change the conventional approach to Catholicism, but by working within the system. 

His radical thinking brought him to national attention when he gave Prime Minister Paul Martin communion after the Liberal government legalized same sex marriage in Canada. Some bishops claimed Martin had automatically excommunicated himself by letting the legislation pass. Father Walsh defended his actions by saying, “People are no less human just because they are born gay. While I cannot perform a same sex marriage, I do not believe in a God who stops loving people because of their sexual orientation.” 

He was committed to interfaith dialogue. Among his many acquaintances were the Dalai Lama, and Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel. His faith, he said, was renewed with the unexpected election of Pope Francis who tells us that to proselytize is foolish, and who promises to reinterpret dogma in ways that the present generation can understand and relate to. 

"People grow in holiness if the Church is there to give them a helping hand, instead of rejecting and condemning them because they aren't perfect," Father Walsh said. 

Father John was Grand Marshall of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 2016. He was invested into the Order of Canada in 2019. He was the honorary CEO of Nazareth Community and Anne’s House, a trinity of places in Montreal that those who struggle with mental health complexities, addiction or homelessness are welcome to call home. For his unceasing work to expand the services offered to men, women and transgendered people at the facilities, a new wing was recently named “John’s House’ in his honour. His funeral procession was organized to pass by the three locations. 

For years, Father Walsh had a devoted audience for his radio show on English-language CJAD, and also managed to become the first Catholic priest elected president of the Kiwanis club. Few were aware of it, but he was also a talented artist and at the time of his death was planning an exhibition of his work as a fundraiser for Nazareth and Anne's House.

“John Walsh was larger than life. He was proud of being a radical, but he was a radical in the best sense of the word,” Father Raymond Lafontaine said. “He advanced the role of the laity and the role of women within the Church. He was a great educator. He believed in the importance of educating lay people in the Church and involving them in decision making.”

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