Answered prayers

Par P.A. Sévigny

Last year, when La Maison du Partage announced it was being forced to close its doors only four days before Christmas, some believe Montreal’s own Saint Marguerite d’Youville went out of her way to save the Pointe St. Charles food bank opened in her name some 24 years ago. Others say it could be due to the work of a small group of concerned citizens who know the value of good work when they see it.

In 1984, inspired by the memory of the 18th century Montreal widow known for her charity and work among the poor, the city’s Grey Nuns decided to open a food bank in the basement of their empty and obsolescent school located on Centre Street in Pointe St. Charles. Twenty-four years later, more than 370 families in Montreal’s Sud-Ouest use the food bank on a regular basis while hundreds of others come to the centre for clothes, furniture and other services. While La Maison du Partage has managed to keep up with the shifting demands of the city’s new economic conditions, new priorities have forced the food bank to expand its services to meet the new and growing demands of Montreal’s poor. Unfortunately, the food bank’s revenue could not keep up with its growing demand.

“It’s always the same story”, said Madeleine Daoust. “After 20-some years with some kind of a steady job, some company is forced to close and somebody’s world is turned upside down.”

Daoust is the food bank’s manager. She described a grim cycle of damaged pride and shattered lives as resumés keep being posted and nothing shows up in the mailbox except bills and overdue rent notices. While most resumés remain unanswered, some applicants are told they have too much experience while others are told they don’t have enough. Some employers make excuses while others tell lies. One middle-aged woman was actually told she was too old for a company’s “corporate culture” while another was told she didn’t have the right “look”. Both women knew this was code for “you’re too old!”. Confidence is lost, people get desperate, families suffer and marriages break down. People cash in their retirement plans, savings run out and before they know it, they’re on the street with everyone else in the same predicament.

“People still think they can catch the train,” said Daoust, “but the train left the station a long time ago.”

Daoust described La Maison du Partage as the kind of place where people get help when they need it the most. With only five full-time employees, 55 volunteers and 56 workers doing community service, La Maison du Partage continues to provide, feed, help and support the destitute and the desperate in Montreal’s Sud-Ouest. However, as of last year, it still cost $250,000 to maintain their operating budgets and as of last December, they were still caught with a $30,000 deficit that was only going to get worse over the winter months.

“We had no choice but to close the doors,” said foundation president Michelle Bourget. “We couldn’t go on like this.”

While the provincial government and Centraide used to provide almost 40 percent of the food bank’s operating expenses, the food bank managed to raise another 20 percent while various charities, religious orders and other organizations made up the difference. Unfortunately, due to a faltering economy and the acute rise in demand for their help, all of the city’s foundations, its charities and assorted religious orders began to have problems of their own. As of last year, La Maison du Partage could no longer depend upon their complete support and as of last December, the food bank was effectively bankrupt.

Once made aware of the emergency, local MNA Madeleine Blais, one of Jean Charest’s better cabinet ministers, found a quick $25,000 which, along with a further $25,000 from the Marcelle and Jean Coutu Foundation, helped keep the food bank open for another year.

“Madeleine Blais helped us out a lot, “said Daoust. “She’s a good woman, a fine MNA, and she does a lot for the area. But let’s face it. The government knows what we’re doing, and they know we’re doing it for pennies on the dollar. Think of what they would have to deal with if we weren’t here to care for these people.”

After more than a decade in the trenches, Daoust is still not ready to give up the fight against poverty in Point St. Charles.

“When everything looks bad, I often have a little chat with “Madame d’Youville,” she said. “She never lets me down.”  After 10 years in the business of helping the poor, Daoust said Madame d’Youville taught her all she needs to know about helping the poor. 

“You never need more than enough just as long as you’ve got everything you need,” said Daoust.

Last week, Madame D’Youville must have been listening. Beryl Wajsman in his capacity as president of the Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal brought together Rev. Darryl Gray, attorney Brigitte Garceau, an experienced community activist and fundraiser, FTQ union executive Edward Brandone, and other social action leaders who met with the food bank’s board of directors in order to work out their plan to save the food bank.

Wajsman has already organized commitments from the Institute’s network to cover the immediate problem of the Maison’s rent for this year. Garceau is planning permanent fundraising events and setting up a fundraising committee. Brandone said the Maison will be adopted as the beneficiary of several union-sponsored charity events. “It shouldn’t be much of a problem,” said Brandone. “They do have serious challenges, but we can help to get this place out of critical condition.”

Others are listening and many agree. Daoust remains confident Madame d’Youville will see that they will work something out so that others may work among the city’s poor as she did some 260 years ago.