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

As “General Practitioner”, St. Christopher House has played an important role not only in the downtown community where it has been located for one hundred years, but also in the development of social services in the City of Toronto. Many of the programs developed or modified by the House to assist its neighbours – the Play School, the Well Baby Clinic, household science classes, community nursing, after-hours programs in public schools, Junior Kindergarten literacy and ESL programs, community development projects – were taken over or extended by public and private organizations once their effectiveness had been proven. This willingness to test new program ideas and methods of work has kept St. Christopher House flexible and responsive to the community as it evolves, and has made it an important agent for innovation in the social service field.
Many changes and challenges have faced St. Christopher House over the years. The Church has changed from patron and benefactor to partner, and finally becoming one of the many donors and colleagues of the House. Wealthy patrons like Sir James Woods have been replaced with United Way funds, government grants, foundations and fundraising events. Building-centred programming was replaced by decentralization, and programming itself took on a new focus as community development concepts and practices were explored and integrated into the work of the House. Goals of empowerment and self-determination have long replaced the initial intentions of the House – to Canadianize and to Christianize. Through all these changes, St. Christopher House has maintained a deep connection to the neighbourhoods it serves, and has responded to the changing needs of immigrants and less-advantaged members of the community.

The Portuguese immigrants and their descendants, who started filling the programs of St. Christopher House since the 1950s, many of which were tailored for that community, were in the 2000s one of the most expressive and well represented groups in the House, not only among the number of participants, but also volunteers and staff. To a large extent, those Portuguese immigrants that used the resources and benefited from the support provided by St. Christiopher House during their years of migration, are today the ones who provide similar support to the new immigrant cohorts that continue to arrive in the city. That is perhaps the best testimony to the success of St. Christopher House in contributing to the development of the self-determination and leadership skills of less-advantaged individuals, and the creation of a spirit of community and mutual support in the neighbourhooods that it has served over the years.

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