St. Christopher House, 1912-2012: a century of social services in Toronto

Closing the residence

In the early years of the House, most staff members lived in the residence. They only paid for their food, but their salaries took this ‘privilege of residence’ into account. Gradually the residence lost its appeal, as more men were entering social work, and women were staying in the field after marriage; living in residence did not fit well with family life. The trend towards professionalism brought more demand for regular working hours and ‘living in’ made this difficult. In 1960 faced with funding shortages, the Board decided to close the residence. This was the end of a chapter in the history of the House. Ethel Dodds Parker, Head Worker from 1917-21, noted in 1961: “There seemed to me to be more real democracy than in the earlier days. It seemed as if the having of no staff residence made the whole house available to everyone on an equal basis.” By 1960 there were fourteen fulltime program workers. All but four had formal training in or health and physical education. Staff by this time also reflected the racial, religious and ethnic diversity of the neighbourhood; no longer were they all members of the Presbyterian Churches.

Split from United Church

In 1960, without consultation with the House, the United Church Board of Home Missions decided not to renew its annual grant and instead give that money to an institutional church where the programs would include preaching, pastoral work and Christian education. The House urged them to reconsider this decision, arguing that the long connection between the two bodies had been a strength to both. The Board of Home Missions reconsidered, and the grant was renewed.  However, the ties between the two organizations were weakening. In 1963, St. Christopher House was incorporated as an independent organization. It continued to receive a small grant from the United Church, and for the next ten years, a half-time position at the House was reserved for a church person, most often a retired clergyman, who did home visits and recommended local churches to the “unchurched.”

Special youth workers

In the 1960s, the district in which St. Christopher House was located was reported as having the highest crime rate in Metropolitan Toronto. The House was aware of the problems facing youth and their parents, particularly the generational conflicts within immigrant families, and among people from rural and small town Canadian backgrounds finding difficulties adjusting to city life. Children from poverty stricken families, who had lived in the downtown area for many years, were also caught in a “subculture of hopelessness.”  Drug use, delinquency and prostitution were noted in the 1968 Annual Report as common problems of teen club participants. The House hired special youth workers to set up new clubs and to do street work to help combat the problems of gangs, prostitution and teenage pregnancy.

Charlyn Howze, the 'Angel of Kensington'

The ‘Angel of Kensington’ was the endearing title that the people of Kensington gave Charlyn Howze, the first neighbourhood community develop-ment worker in Toronto, hired by St. Christopher House in 1961. Her confidence in the ability of neigbourhood groups and individuals to stand and speak for themselves encouraged much positive action. Howze helped organize the Alexandra Park Residents Association in 1963 and guided that group through  several  years  and  stages  of  urban renewal planning and implementation. By the time of her death in 1968, Howze had established St. Christopher House as a leader in community development work in west central Toronto. The House’s commitment to community work was clearly articulated in the 1966 Statement of Objectives, which stressed the tackling of community problems by collective citizen action, and the role of the House in initiating reform, promoting the democratic participation of neighbours and providing professional support to self-help groups.

Joe Brown Steel Drum Band

The St. Christopher House Steel Drum Band was another innovation during this time. In the early 1960s, a young Trinidadian named Joe Brown started using steel drum bands in New York City’s Lower East Side as a means of “drumming out delinquency.” Brown came to Toronto in 1963, and was hired by St. Christopher House to work with black youth. The steel drum band that was quickly formed was officially called the St. Christopher House Steel Drum Band, but its members insisted on calling themselves the Joe Brown Juniors after their much admired leader. The band was in great demand, performing outside the House two or three times per month by 1965. The highlight was playing at the closing luncheon of the 1965 United Appeal Campaign before 1200 people in the Crystal Ball room of the Royal York Hotel. "They stole the show", it was noted in that year's Annual Report.

The community helps run the House

The growing partnership with the community during the 1960s and 1970s coincided with the house’s re-examination of internal policies and practices. In 1969, community members sat on the Board for the first time, and a rotation system for Board members was introduced. A Membership Council was formed to give program participants representation on the Program Committee, and local residents sat on hiring committees for staff positions available at the House. A new membership policy introduced in 1975 broadened voting status to active residents and staff members, and it was decided that one-third of the Board and one-half of the total full and part-time staff were to be area residents.

The first Portuguese-speaking staff worker at St. Christopher House was Edith Clarke, hired in the early 1960s, who had been a missionary in Angola. Primarily she did home visits; interpretation at various appointments; and helped immigrants find employment.
St. Christopher House staff saw their goal in these early years as one of assimilating immigrants into ‘Canadian’ ways. For example, a 1963 report indicated that Portuguese families were prevented from becoming “good Canadians” because of the language barrier and “their lack of desire to adopt better eating and health habits”. The Portuguese were perceived as “inclined to use too much fat and carbohydrates in their diets, too little milk, and not enough vitamins”. But over the 1960s, a greater recognition of the immigrants’ own cultural customs and values would come to predominate at St. Christopher House.

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