Despite a gradual change in the surrounding neighbourhood, which is undergoing the early stages of gentrification, a dedicated crew of volunteers have been keeping a much-needed food bank and ministry alive at St. Monica’s Anglican Church, in two adjacent storefronts on Gerrard Street East, at the west end of the Gerrard India Bazaar.
The current reverend, Nola Crewe, is continuing in the footsteps of her predecessor, who helped the church transition from a more traditional configuration into the bustling storefront community hub it’s become.
The church was originally located on Hiawatha Road, but a diminishing congregation combined with an offer to purchase the building from the Neighbourhood Unitarian Universalist Congregation and Kew Park Montessori resulted in St. Monica’s relocating to Gerrard, where the food bank has continued, along with a community outreach and small congregation that gathers weekly in the unconventional space.
Crewe had a placement at St. Monica’s while completing her Masters of Divinity, then a second placement. When the last minister left, she asked if she could take over, and realized suddenly that all her scholarly ideas now needed to become a reality.
“What do students do? They write papers on what they would do if it were their church,” she said, laughing.
The church side was set up in a very traditional manner when she arrived, but over time the format was changed, to the point that services now take place with the congregation sitting in a circle. There is no pulpit, and readings take place from where parishioners are seated. While the format has been popular, it’s also served to remind Crewe that her congregation is made up of very down to earth people. She announced that instead of a sermon at a morning prayer service, the group would talk in a circle about the topic she would have covered in the sermon. One man looked at her and asked if that meant he had to listen now.
“It really is a wonderful congregation, because they keep pulling you down to earth,” she said.
A recent service included what Crewe believes is a first – a blessing for all transportation modes. Everything from cars to the TTC to bicycles to shoes were covered.
While the church keeps Crewe busy on Sundays, St. Monica’s is constantly humming with the activity of the food bank. Longtime volunteer Chris Vankeeffe said the need for the food bank isn’t diminishing – in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
“It’s always busy, unfortunately. Business is brisk,” he said.
The food bank serves an average of 500 people a month, said Vankeeffe, although the numbers can go as high as 700 a month during the winter. He pointed out that, like many food banks, clientele is made up of quite a diversity of people, including many who work full time, but at minimum wage. Part of the food bank’s mission is to attract people who could use its services, but don’t.
“It’s our intention to reach out to those who qualify,” said Vankeeffe.
Crewe agreed, saying she’s read that as many as 70 per cent of people who could use food banks don’t. She said there are two main reasons those people don’t use the food bank: either they’re embarrassed, or they don’t even realize they qualify.
Though not everyone turns their life around, Vankeeffe said he’s seen quite a few during his time volunteering who have. When they do, they almost always return to say thanks, and sometimes to give back when they can.
“In many cases they donate food,” he said.
Because some of the clients at the food bank could seem intimidating to others – Crewe said 65 per cent are men aged 40 to 65 with mental health or addiction issues – Saturday mornings are reserved for families. While moms pick up food and enjoy a bit of social time, their children can join in the fun with the Kid’s Club, which offers activities for the young ones on the church side of St. Monica’s. All kids from the neighbourhood are welcome to the club, not just those with parents using the food bank.
When asked why she chose to take up the calling, Crewe said it wasn’t really a choice on her part.
“God just pokes you. When the Holy Ghost decides you need to do something, you might as well just give up,” she said.
Before joining the church, Crewe was a lawyer. Though many may not see the similarities between the two careers, she said the two jobs aren’t so different as many might think.
“People have problems. You didn’t create the problems, but you try to help solve them,” she said.