By Stuart Mann
When the Rev. Dr. Alison Falby arrived at All Saints, Sherbourne Street nine months ago, the church was going through one of its hardest winters. The building’s boiler was on its last legs, the number of homeless visitors was growing and the neighbourhood was in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic.
“I felt like I was trying to put out fires while being pelted with snowballs,” recalls Ms. Falby, the church’s new priest-in-charge.
Located at the corner of Dundas and Sherbourne streets in downtown Toronto, All Saints runs a large drop-in that serves up to 300 people a day. The church also has a small but growing congregation that worships each Sunday.
If Ms. Falby carries any scars from that trial by fire last winter, she doesn’t show it. On a warm day in late August, she cheerfully goes about her job, meeting with homeless people, staff, volunteers, building contractors and visitors. Between conversations, she oversees countless tasks to get the church ready for another year.
“My office is in total chaos, but I’m enjoying it,” she quips.
Signs of new life and hope are everywhere at All Saints. Over the summer, the church repaired the floor of the nave, where the drop-in is held. It installed a new welcome desk and office space where staff can meet one-on-one with the shelter’s guests. Smaller repairs and improvements have been made inside and outside the building as well.
“We’re just trying to make things nicer,” explains Ms. Falby. “Beauty is very important, especially if you don’t have a lot of it in your life.”
To keep up with the growing number of homeless and poor people in the neighbourhood, the drop-in now provides two meals a day – breakfast and lunch. It has more than 30 mats for those who need to sleep during the day. It also provides nursing care, counselling, games, two women’s groups and a men’s cooking club.
The church is in the centre of the opioid crisis in downtown Toronto and hands out harm reduction kits for safe drug use. An overdose prevention site is located across the street and many of the users come to the church’s drop-in.
“It’s about saving people’s lives, but it’s also about helping people feel less alone,” says Ms. Falby. “There have been a lot of deaths and people are constantly grieving. That’s been the other role of the church here: providing a place for people to mourn their losses.”
She would like to create a memorial board to opioid overdose victims, similar to the homeless memorial at Holy Trinity, Trinity Square, and have a monthly memorial service as well. The church held an “opioid walk” on Good Friday to bear witness to those who had died nearby.
She says the church’s building, which has been described as an architectural gem and contains some of the most beautiful stained-glass windows in the city, plays an important role in giving comfort to those who live on the margins of society. “All Saints is very beautiful and peaceful. There are people who live in shelters who say this is the only place where they can find that. When you’re homeless, life can be ugly a lot of the time. Beauty is a way to connect with God and it can speak to us when words fail us.”
The drop-in desperately needs volunteers, she says, especially for its two women’s groups. No particular skills are required. “The greatest gift that you can give here is the gift of attention. To sit down and be with someone who is usually ignored is worth more than anything.”
The drop-in isn’t the only thing at All Saints that is growing; the Sunday congregation is too, up from 10 to about 25 on a Sunday, making it one of the fastest growing Anglican congregations in the city. One of the reasons for the growth is simple, she explains: people can now use the front door of the church; previously, they go through a side door that leads on to the parking lot. With the front door open, more people are inclined to come in off the street.
The congregation is made up of homeless people and those who have homes. The service is held in the chancel, starting at 11 a.m., and a lunch is held afterwards. In addition to worshipping, the congregation looks after a little garden on the property.
Ms. Falby says the inclusion of homeless people in the congregation is an important aspect of All Saints, one that she does not want to lose as the congregation grows. “I think it’s probably the only Anglican congregation in Toronto where poor people genuinely feel at home. They have a lot to teach us. The joy of being here is that it tells us what matters. It’s a real grounding centre, praying with members of the community.”
For more information about All Saints and its programs, contact the Rev. Dr. Alison Falby at firstname.lastname@example.org.