Remembering the legacy of Winnipeg’s urban saint

Social justice advocate and community activist Harry Lehotsky held nothing back when it came to helping others

Harry Lehotsky, presenting some of the new homes of his Lazarus Housing Project.

Almost three years ago today, Harry Lehotsky, the longtime-activist for the poor and underprivileged of Winnipeg’s West End, passed away from pancreatic cancer.

Lehotsky helped found New Life Ministries in 1983, in order to help the people in the community.

“Harry understood that people could make mistakes and that bad things could happen out of their control,” said Paul Boge, author of The Urban Saint, a new book on the life of Lehotsky.

“Harry Lehotsky was born and raised in New York and he got involved with drugs as a teenager,” said Boge.

One evening Lehotsky and his friends were out driving and using drugs when Lehotsky overdosed. Instead of taking him to the hospital, his friends left him at the foot of a bridge on a curb until a police officer found him and took him to get help.
“Harry eventually came to in the hospital, looked around and said, ‘God, if you can get me out of this mess, I will do whatever it is you want me to do.’ Here’s a kid at the bottom of the world. Here’s a kid who feels so awful and has no idea how he’s going to get out,” Boge said.

“In that moment he was able to identify with drug addicts, with people who are hopeless, with people who had made mistakes and with people who had been treated terribly by people around them,” Boge explained. “That is why he understood the West End so well.”

Lehotsky went on to Bible college in North Dakota and Edmonton until he was eventually led to Niagara Falls to give a lecture on inner-city work.

“Some representatives from Winnipeg [were at] the same conference, [so they] went to Harry and said, ‘We have a need here in Winnipeg, especially in the West End,’” said Boge.

“He was very big on living where he was working. It was very important to him. He got upset at people who work for the government but then would leave [at the end of the day],” said Boge. “[Harry] was passionate about a connection in everything you did in life. That’s where I work, that’s where I live. A connection is a 24-7 operation, if I’m going to make a change here. It is so easy to turn a blind eye to problems if it’s easy to leave.

A connection is a 24-7 operation. It is so easy to turn a blind eye to problems if it’s easy to leave.

Paul Boge, author of The Urban Saint

“The part that hurt Harry so badly was that people would show up nine to five, cut their cheques and they would be gone. Well, who looks after this guy on the weekends? Who looks after this guy on holidays? Who looks after this guy when he’s battling an addiction?” said Boge of Lehotsky’s view on helping his community.

“Harry wasn’t about trying to promote one view or another, he was about helping people.”

Lehotsky helped in the battle of eradicating massage parlours, pawn shops and drug houses in the West End. He also helped restore houses and give those in need a place to stay.

Lehotsky began Lazurus and Nehemiah housing in 1998 to fix up the housing in the West End so that people with lower-income salaries could live in a safer community.

“Harry saw a connection in improving the neighbourhood and improving the people in the neighbourhood,” said Boge.

Lehotsky also founded the Ellice Café and Theatre in 2005, a non-profit restaurant and theatre, as another tool to bring the community together.

“He wasn’t about building a legacy; he just cared about one person at a time.”

Lehotsky went on to receive the Order of Canada, shortly before he passed away in 2006. Lehotsky was a husband, father, activist, builder and friend.

In this month of remembrance, we are remembering those who fought on our behalf and made the ultimate sacrifice for us.

Lehotsky fought on behalf of those who could not and helped those in need.

There is no doubt that he brought change to this city – changes that will forever be remembered.

Published in Volume 64, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 12, 2009)

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