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Journey to Justice

By Joe Gunn


Scarboro Missions and the end of a missionary era

Rev. Frank Diemert was shaking with laughter — at his own expense.

He was relieved to find himself on a flight to the Dominican Republic. Having served for two terms back in Canada as Superior General of the Scarboro Foreign Mission Society, Father Frank was anxiously anticipating this chance to return to the endeavours that had fuelled his passionate desire to become a missionary priest.

So, he thought, while on this plane, I might practice my rusty Spanish with the little girl sitting in the middle seat between me and her mom (he already knew kids are the most forgiving language teachers). Stumbling a bit, he tried a few greetings on the young girl — strangely, she remained impassive. But her mother, from the seat by the window, stared at Diemert with alarm.

Undeterred, and knowing a good missionary must overcome any number of obstacles, this man of good heart tried again. Now, the mother’s visage transformed into a mask of unadulterated chagrin, while still the wee waif offered no word of response. Frank decided to smile, turn away, and return to his own, silent, thoughts.

It was only as the plane approached the landing strip in Santo Domingo did it dawn on Diemert that the little girl he tried to chat with was really a life-sized doll! Chuckling at his own mistake, he found relief in the thought that his accent (and his lisp!) might not have been the reasons, after all, for the “little girl’s” refusals to engage with him!

I was on that 1974 flight with Father Frank, and have continued to enjoy wonderful adventures with Scarboro Missioners ever since.

There are millions of stories of cross-cultural mishaps (not all as humorous, perhaps) in SFM’s 99-year history. Priests and lay missioners of Scarboro Missions have served in Africa, Asia and Latin America, making significant contributions to the missionary outreach of the English-speaking Canadian church.

Today, several aspects of this ministry are coming to an end.

At their 14th General Chapter last summer, the members of Scarboro Missions acted on the reality of their aging and declining membership. They decided to no longer recruit or accept new priests or lay missioners into the Society. The final two issues of Scarboro Missions magazine and their popular calendar will be published in 2018. After Jan. 1, SFM will no longer solicit or accept donations. They have sold their property at 2685 Kingston Road to the Toronto District School Board, for construction of a new high school.

Implications of these decisions are far reaching: there is probably no member of the Canadian Religious Conference, Development and Peace, the Canadian Council of Churches or any ecumenical coalition who has not attended national meetings held on SFM’s Kingston Road property. Student retreats on social, ecological and interfaith topics have kept the building enthusiastically humming with youthful energy for years. Scarboro’s interfaith program is famously renowned for their “Golden Rule” poster, explaining the sacred writings of 13 different faith traditions — and is even said to be hanging in the Vatican.

Scarboro’s earliest missionaries to China. Rev. John Mary Fraser (right) supervises the start of a project to build St. Joseph’s Church in Lungchuan, with (from left) his brother Rev. William Fraser, Rev. Paul Kam, and Rev. Ramon Serra. Circa 1920s. (SFM photo)

Scarboro priests were originally missioned to China, but forced to leave there after the triumph of Mao Zedong’s Revolution in 1949. New ministries in the Dominican Republic and Japan were then opened. Scarboro men like Harvey Steele were steeped in Rev. Moses Coady’s Antigonish movement, and started co-operatives to counter the outrageous poverty and exploitation they encountered in “the missions.” Eventually, Scarboro missioners served in the Philippines, Brazil, Guyana, Mexico, the Caribbean and Peru (among other locales), often among the poorest of the poor and in isolated situations. They were joined by Canadian religious, like the Grey Sisters of Pembroke, Our Lady’s Missionaries, The Sisters of Providence, and more.

In Canada, Scarboro missioners have been among the most active social justice practioners. Rev. Buddy Smith went to Chile to interview people in danger (or who had been tortured) after the 1973 military coup — and helped push our government to allow them entry to Canada. Many Chilean refugees were initially welcomed in the motherhouse. Rev. Bill Smith, an expert on Latin America, guided the Canadian bishops, and then Development and Peace, on human rights and development issues throughout the hemisphere. Rev. Tim Ryan challenged Canadian corporations and banks concerning their practices overseas. Rev. Gerry Curry made the Scarboro Missions magazine a must-read publication for Catholic social activists. Rev. John Walsh helped design Development and Peace education campaigns, and today many returned lay missioners use their overseas experience to strengthen Development and Peace’s actions of international solidarity.

The missionary era is not dead in the church. But it certainly is evolving.

To understand what this means for today, read Pope Francis’ brilliant apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium). Francis writes: “I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are” (EG #25).

Scarboro Missions decided to make a series of legacy endowments to groups (like Regis College, KAIROS and Citizens for Public Justice, among others) “which share our vision and zeal for the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” They contributed to the Mary Ward Centre (of the Loretto Sisters) on the University of Toronto campus to ensure that youth programming will remain ongoing for years to come. Pope Francis recognizes that “missionary outreach is paradigmatic for all the church’s activity” (EG #15).

Thanks be to God that the Canadian church had SFM to define that paradigm in action for the last 99 years — and through their inspirational legacy, for years to come.

Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.