Father Emmett 'Pops' Johns remembered for saving lives

About 200 people gathered Wednesday evening at Place Émilie-Gamelin to pay tribute to Father Emmett "Pops" Johns, who died last Saturday at the age of 89.

Public vigil held at square where Johns would often park Dans la rue RV to help at-risk youth

At the vigil for Father Emmett 'Pops' Johns, electric votive candles spell his name. Other candles were put in paper bags with messages about him. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

Walking carefully across the icy Place Émilie-Gamelin, where crowds huddled together for warmth, people stopped to hug old friends and swap stories about the man they came here to honour: Father Emmett "Pops" Johns.

Johns died last Saturday at the age of 89. The organization he founded, Dans la rue, announced his passing on Sunday. 

At the public vigil, many members of the crowd were current or former Dans la rue workers and volunteers. They happily reconnected with each other and left last words to Father Johns on paper bags lit with electric votive candles. 

Others lingered alone near the fire pits, smoking and looking solemn, as darkness fell over the unlit square. 

About a dozen police officers stood on the outskirts of the crowd as it continued to swell.

The crowd ranged from street kids, to people who used to be homeless, to elected officials including Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard.

'Saving their lives'

Standing near a fire pit, Jessica Albayrak, 24, was well-known by other members of the crowd. 

It's been almost a decade since Albayrak was a teenage runaway who found herself in downtown Montreal in the frigid cold, looking for food and safety.

After three days on the streets, she found the Bunker — an emergency shelter operated by Dans la rue which offers a safe space for at-risk youth.

She said for some of her friends, Pops' work was "literally saving their lives."

Johns founded Le Bon Dieu dans la rue in 1988. He took a used RV on nightly rounds, looking for street kids and offering them meals and a warm place to take refuge.

Now, Albayrak's the one helping street youth as a peer worker where she liaises between youth and the organizations which are there to help them.

Jessica Albayrak now works with street kids after being helped by Dans la rue at 15. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

Johns's legacy made a strong impression on her.

"He would welcome people openly, without judgment," Albayrak said. "There aren't a lot of places like that."

Judgment-free space

Former volunteer Kayte Toal said non-judgment was one of the most important things to Father Johns.

She said he insisted volunteers follow two rules when it came to street kids entering the van: "If a kid came on the van with an animal — dog, cat or rat — that was his family, treat him with respect," Toal said.

"The other rule was if a kid came in the van, totally trashed, drugged and drunk, don't judge. Just try to get him to eat something."

She said losing Johns made her "feel empty" and that her hope now is that he doesn't become simply an emblem.

"I want people to remember, it's him, it's Pops," Toal said. 

People lit candles and left handwritten messages on paper bags for 'Pops' at his vigil. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

The Dans la rue family

Volunteer Vern Carol, 79, joined the organization 16 years ago and said that Johns loved people very much, especially kids.

"Most of these kids, they just needed a break and he gave them a break," Carol said.

Erin MacCoubrey has been volunteering with the organization for six years and said she never met "Pops" but always looked up to him.

Montrealer Erin MacCoubrey left Father Emmett 'Pops' Johns a message of thanks. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

"It's really a big warm family, and it's just amazing what he's created," she said. "He's been so inspiring, and he's just touched my life so much."

Wednesday's vigil was not the last chance for the public to pay their respects to Johns.

Next week, on Jan. 25 and 26, there will be a public visitation and funeral service for the Catholic priest at Montreal City Hall.

The funeral mass for Johns is set for Saturday, Jan. 27 at 10:30 a.m. at Montreal's Saint Patrick's Basilica. Montreal Archbishop Christian Lépine will perform the service for Johns, who was an Irish Catholic priest.

On that day, the flag at Quebec's National Assembly will fly at half-mast.

With files from CBC's Melissa Fundira