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

Neighbourhood-centered approach

A survey done by the City in the 1940s described the House’s neighbourhood as the most densely populated of Toronto, and a slum. By the late 1950s, the area was being affected by the post-war building boom. Many houses were demolished to allow for the rebuilding of Ryerson and King Edward Schools, and for the expansion of Toronto Western Hospital and the University of Toronto, thus increasing the housing problem. With all these developments, the House took on a mediating role between the Planning Board and the people of the neighbourhood. While the trend developing in American settlements was to favour a building-centred operation, to the neglect of the traditional neighbourhood function, the House’s staff made a commitment to develop a  neighbourhood-centred approach in everything they did.

Postwar immigration

Immigration during this period led to significant changes in the neighbourhood’s population.  While it had been 60% Jewish after the war, by 1958 the neighbourhood was 60% Roman Catholic. This was reflected in the House’s membership, as the number of Jewish participants dropped significantly, giving way to the new wave of immigrants from Europe. Over thirty nationalities could be found at the House. Among them were many “displaced persons” from war torn Europe, who moved in and out of the district fairly quickly as their situation improved. The largest ethnic group represented was the Portuguese, followed by Italians, Ukrainians, Germans and Hungarians. Staff was concerned that immigrant adults were reluctant to socialize at the House. This problem was resolved in 1953, when a civic grant allowed the hiring of an experienced multilingual worker to develop social and recreational programs for non-Anglo adults. By the end of the year, monthly attendance in the twenty-four group programs that were established had reached 750 people. Many adults living in boarding rooms came to the House for Sunday afternoon get-togethers that included a light meal. The informal character of the English classes taught at the House by volunteers appealed to those who found the classes offered by the Board of Education too structured.

St. Christopher House made specific efforts to serve the Portuguese ever since their settlement in Toronto in the mid to late-1950s. These were primarily men whose families had yet to join them in Canada. Initially they organized men's club rooms, and later, as families began to arrive, children joined the nursery school and youth programs. It was also common for Portuguese families to hold parties at the House at this time.

Youth work

In the 1950s, more attention was given to children with special needs and to youth. Selective intake, an emphasis on individualized rather than generalized service, and new record-keeping procedures were introduced, reflecting trends in social work towards a more therapeutic based approach. Youth work was identified as the House’s highest priority during this period “because of the seriousness of the personal and social problems... encountered in this age range” by staff at the House, including chronic unemployment and theft, pimping, prostitution, narcotic addiction and a high number of kids dropping out of school. In 1955, a new club was created for a group of boys who were “hanging around outside the building clamouring to ‘storm the fortress’.” They were invited into the House for sports, pool, ping pong and boxing.

Annual Children's Easter Parade

Program Director Jean Alderwood introduced the annual Children’s Easter Parade through the neighbourhood streets to mark the end of the Easter holiday program. The children made costumes, and celebrities such as the Howdy Doody Show troupe joined in the festivities.


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