Nov. 20, 2020
By JANICE ARNOLD
MONTREAL—To many, “Father John” was the Montreal Jewish community’s priest. Some even respectfully called him “Rabbi Walsh.”
All considered him a mensch – and a beloved one.
That’s been abundantly clear, given the outpouring of sadness, gratitude and, as he would have wished it, humorous reminiscing since Father John Walsh’s death at age 78 on Nov. 9.
Surely this was the first time in its century-long history that Paperman’s funeral home listed a Catholic priest among the funerals, with links to the interreligious memorial planned for him and to his favourite cause, the Nazareth Community, which serves the homeless.
The Paperman family said it “mourns the loss of a compassionate leader, a bridge builder and a dear friend” to the community. The scores of condolences on the website concurred.
“He endeared himself to Jewish Montrealers, who considered him one of their own,” tweeted Eta Yudin, vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs-Quebec.
In a nod to Father Walsh’s Irish heritage, one synagogue’s cantor sang Danny Boy at the Shabbat service after the priest’s death.
His longtime friend and collaborator Rabbi Michael Whitman of Congregation Adath Israel, posted a “secret” on social media: “The rabbis of Montreal knew that Father Walsh was much more popular in the Jewish community than any of us.”
Over the decades, Father Walsh had a bond with the community that went beyond interfaith dialogue, a term he avoided. He was not an emissary of the Catholic Church; he acted on his own volition. This was personal, even visceral.
Everyone has spoken of his genuine love and interest in each person, whoever they were. But Judaism and the Jewish people were the strongest among his ties to other religious and cultural groups.
He joked that with his initials – his full name was John Emmett Walsh – predestined him to a kinship with Jews.
His goodwill was constant in good times and bad, said Rabbi Whitman. Whenever there was an act of antisemitism in the world, he immediately called to express his solidarity.
As Rabbi Lisa Grushcow of Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom put it at an interreligious memorial on Nov. 14, “those in interfaith work build relationships on theology or policy, but Father John built relationships for the relationship; nothing got in the middle.”
The memorial, which was webcast from a funeral home due to pandemic restrictions on gatherings, preceded Father Walsh’s funeral Mass, also invitation-only, on Nov. 16.
After studies in Rome, Father Walsh continued his education in theology and scripture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He learned Hebrew and his command of the language delighted Jewish audiences.
His ministry in Montreal spanned close to 50 years until his retirement from St. John Brebeuf Parish in LaSalle a decade ago. After that, he devoted even more time to what was dear to his heart.
In 2012, he, Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem, and Imam Zijad Delic, created a blog called Faith Blender. Each clergyman offered his perspective on current issues or common human dilemmas. Their goal, as the site points out, was not to convert anyone, but rather to share their respective traditions.
Father Walsh died of a heart attack as he was about to officiate at a funeral. He had been well and active until then. Just a few days before, he was feted by the Nazareth Community, with which he was associated for 40 years, when its newest shelter, a home for young men, was named “John’s House.”
Israeli Consul General David Levy made a donation on behalf of his country, to which Father Walsh remained faithful. Cantor Gideon Zelermyer of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim sang on that occasion, as he did at the interreligious service.
Zelermyer had been friends with Father Walsh since the young American cantor came to Montreal some 20 years ago. This was not a polite acquaintance, but a deep relationship that extended to Zelermyer’s entire family.
He recalled the first time Father Walsh was a guest at his home for a Passover seder. The priest apologized that he had forgotten his kippah. Zelermyer’s young son quickly fetched one. “It was a red velvet one. A big smile came on John’s face and he exclaimed, ‘Hah, a promotion!’” alluding to the headwear of Catholic cardinals.
Zelermyer concluded the memorial with Come Healing and If it Be Your Will, two spiritual songs by Leonard Cohen.
There were official tributes as well. Rabbi Reuben Poupko, co-chair of CIJA-Quebec, stated that his close friend “brought Montreal together. His sincerity and love were powerful forces that helped shape the life of the city.” Federation CJA CEO Yair Szlak commented that Walsh “embodied the spirit of tikun olam. A mensch to the core, he will be deeply missed by Jewish Montrealers…”
When he was honoured with the Sheila and Victor Goldbloom Distinguished Community Service Award in 2012, Father Walsh explained what motivated him. “My work in interfaith [dialogue] is to change humanity. If we can all reclaim that together, then we can make a better world. Yes, there will be differences. We need to say: How can we become better human beings?”