'Thanks for listening to me one more time,' Winnipeg pastor says posthumously at funeral

Family, church members, politicians, social activists and inner-city residents packed into a downtown Winnipeg church Wednesday for the funeral of Rev. Harry Lehotsky.
In a videotapedeulogy produced before his death, Winnipeg pastor and inner-city activist Rev. Harry Lehotsky spoke to the nearly 2,000 people attending his funeral Wednesday, thanking them and urging them to continue his work in the community.
Mourners gathered at Rev. Harry Lehotsky's graveside as the Winnipeg pastor and inner-city activist was buried Wednesday afternoon. ((CBC))

Family, church members, politicians, social activists and inner-city residents packed a downtown church Wednesday morning for Lehotsky's funeral.

The 49-year-old pastor and inner-city activist died on Saturday after a five-month battle withpancreatic cancer.

"OK, I guess even I can admit this is just a little bit weird," Lehotsky admitted in the beginning of his videotapedeulogy.

He said it was"one more chance to speak to the people I love, that have meant a lot to me, and one more chance to say thank you."

As founder and pastor of New Life Ministries, Lehotsky helped inner-city people get food and jobs. He also headed the Lazarus Housing project, which turned abandoned buildings into livable properties for low-income residents.

In 2005,he opened and ran the Ellice Café and Theatre at the corner of Ellice Avenue and Sherbrook Street. A year after it opened, the caféhad become a popular hangout and was attracting people from all over the city.

In his eulogy,Lehotsky spoke directly to his family, giving his wife Virginia and their three teenagesons personal messages of thanks and asking them to be strong.

He also thanked members of New Life Ministries, the church he founded two decades ago in the city's West End.

'God sure found the right place …'

"God sure found the right place to put me, and the right people to call into the building here with us. And together we've done some pretty amazing things," Lehotsky said.

"Think about how neat it is to pastor a church where people are more concerned about walking the walk instead of just talking the talk… Where people are more interested in 'what are we doing out in the neighbourhood during the week?' Instead of, 'How many times can we meet inside the walls of the church during the week?'"

Lehotsky also spoke on a political level, challenging leaders and local activists to allow more people to get involved in the community.
A sign outside the Calvary Temple invited everyone to attend the service. ((CBC))

"I think it would be nice to broaden the circle a little bit, especially in community development, and see that there are many people who are able to do stuff," he said.

"I hope the existing players — the big players, the old blood, the social aristocracy or whatever— if they step aside just long enough for some of the young players, some of the new players to come and in and just start to do some of the work …believe me, there's a lot of energy, a lot of pent-up energy waiting to be used on behalf of community."

Lehotsky concluded his eulogy with an emotionalmessage of thanks to everyone.

"Thanks for one more time of listening, and bless each one of you," he said, his voice cracking with emotion.

"Even on this side of things now, it's weird ... I miss things about my family, not going to be able to be there. I miss things about church, the beauty of what we've had there. The community and the things that we're fighting for, still in the midst of working for," he said.

"I miss being taken away at the age of 49. But at the same time, I'm thankful for where I'm going and I just pray that I get to see many more of you again."

Praised as someone who 'just got things done'

The audience responded to Lehotsky's eulogy with tears and laughter, the latter thanks to the late pastor's wit and dry sense of humour.

Many praised the pastor as a man dedicated to improving the lives of those around him.

"I felt his life was very much intermingled in the community. Everything he did he did with others, for the good of the community," said Janet Johnson, who, as volunteer co-ordinator with the John Howard Society of Manitoba, had worked closely with Lehotsky on a number of projects.

"It was never just him. It was God working through him, it was him working with other people."

Lehotsky was also an outspokenactivist and newspaper columnist, advocating for tougher measures to fight crime and fighting against bureaucracy.

"Harry did things that no one ever believed they would ever be able to accomplish. But more so, Harry was not into red tape, couldn't stand bureaucracy. I supported him on that, and he just got things done," Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz said Wednesday.

"He definitely upset a lot of people. But you know what? That was his style. He was a wonderful human being."

Lehotsky grew up in New York, and said that in his late teens, he realized his life was not where he wanted it to be.

After overdosing on drugs,he turned his life around, moving to Winnipeg's West End 23 years ago and beginningto focus on causes helping the poor.

He was buried at Brookside Cemetery on Wednesday afternoon.