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Manitoba History: The Life and Work of Reverend Harry Lehotsky

by Amirah Sequeira
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 61, Fall 2009

The following essay was chosen the winner of the 2007 Dr. Edward Shaw Award in the Young Historians Competition sponsored by the Manitoba Historical Society. At that time, Amirah Sequeira was a student at Grant Park High School. Editors.

For years, Winnipeg’s West End has been a neighbourhood notorious for its crime and poverty. The area started its steady decline in the years following the Second World War. Affluent families who had resided in the area started to move to Winnipeg’s suburbs, and many of the homes were converted into rental housing and quickly became dilapidated. For the past forty years, the area has been marked by crime, poverty, homelessness and drugs. Most of the people living with these problems have a strong desire to change their lives for the better, but they lack the encouragement to do so. Reverend Harry Lehotsky made it his life’s work to provide this encouragement.

Reverend Harry Lehotsky (1957-2006)

Reverend Harry Lehotsky (1957-2006)
Source: New Life Ministries

“Crazy Harry”

Harry Lehotsky was born to Walter and Hildegard Lehotsky in 1957. He was the only son in a family of three children, in between sisters Karen and Ardice. His parents had immigrated to New York City from Yugoslavia and Germany, and it was there that Harry was raised. As a kid, he loved basketball, and his carefree nature led to the nickname “Crazy Harry.” Although he was never too concerned with school, he was always a sharp and intelligent boy. His interest in inner-city ministry began as a child, as he attended church with his parents who were actively involved in “Walter Rauschebusch’s old church in Times Square.” Harry later said that “it was there that I accepted my need for our Saviour and Lord.” [1]

However, despite his religious upbringing, Harry became quite rebellious as a teenager. He was involved with gangs and drug abuse. Mainly addicted to heroine, he was the supplier of the drug to his group of friends. It was only after a near death experience that he was able to remove himself from the world of gangs and drugs. At the age of seventeen, Harry was driving with his friends one night, when he overdosed on heroine. All his friends were high at the time, and when Harry became unconscious, his friends abandoned him, leaving him out on the street alone. By a turn of fate, he was found by a police officer and taken to the hospital. Upon recovering from this experience, he began to turn his life around.

A New Perspective

After graduating from New York’s Central High in 1975, Harry pursued his studies of Christianity. His desire to demonstrate that God’s forgiveness and love were relevant in the inner city, led him to North American College (now Taylor University College.) [2] He then attended the Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1979 and 1980. In 1980–1981, he did his second year of seminary at the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education in Chicago (SCUPE). While in Chicago, he resided in the infamous Cabrini Green neighbourhood. Although now very well known for its transformation, at the time it was a neighbourhood filled with poverty, crime, and racial tension. Harry was one of a few white men living in a prominently African-American and Immigrant neighbourhood. At this time, Harry became even more aware of the challenges faced in a poverty-stricken inner-city neighbourhood. His experiences in Chicago and New York set the stage for the conflicts and challenges he would later face in Winnipeg’s West End.

After completing a year at SCUPE, he moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to do his last year of seminary at the North American Baptist Seminary (NABS). Harry felt it was important to maintain his connection with the North American Baptist Conference and with the rich heritage of pastors such as Walter Rauschenbusch. Harry really valued his time at NABS, and especially valued the things taught to him by Professor Dr. Stan Grenz. In remembering his time at NABS, Harry said, “Very subtly and graciously, Stan helped me to integrate my heritage as a Baptist with my training in community activism and love for the city.” [3]

In October of 1981, while studying in Sioux Falls, the 24-year-old Harry met the women who would later become his wife. Virginia had grown up in a small town in South Dakota, close to Sioux Falls, in a Mennonite family. At the time she met Harry, she was working as a bookkeeper at the seminary. The two met briefly once, and later went out for lunch. Following Harry’s graduation from the North American Baptist Seminary in May of 1981, Harry and Virginia went to New York for two weeks, so that Virginia could meet Harry’s parents and get to know New York. She recalls how Harry seemed to put her through a “walking test”, wondering if she (a small town girl from South Dakota) would be able to find her way around the Big Apple. Harry was never a man to make decisions lightly, he took care and concern in everything he did. Virginia passed the test, and the couple was married on 28 August 1982, in New York City.

The newlyweds moved permanently to New York. Harry worked as a law clerk while also working as a Youth Pastor, and Virginia was working for a recycling paper brokerage. In October of 1982, Harry was giving a workshop on urban ministry at the 1982 NAB Triennial Conference in Niagara Falls, when the Manitoba Baptist Association of North American Baptist Churches heard him speak. They immediately contacted Harry, and invited him to Winnipeg to lay a foundation for community ministry. [4] The concept involved creating a structure of participation through the church to respond to issues of local concerns, to give voice to conscience, and help with human needs. The Lehotskys accepted the offer, and after nearly a year of waiting for immigration papers to come through, they moved to Winnipeg in November of 1983.

The Beginning of the New Life Ministries

The Manitoba Baptist Churches purchased a house for the new pastor and his wife on Ellice Avenue, right in the heart of Winnipeg’s West End. While Harry and Virginia lived in the upstairs of the house, they used the downstairs for church activities. Thus the New Life Ministries (NLM) was born. The couple started out by holding Bible studies in the downstairs of their home on Ellice. These studies started out with only about five people. Virginia Lehotsky still recalls the first members of the church, made up of a few couples, families, and single women from around the neighbourhood. After a year, they started holding Sunday church services in the house as well. While on one day twelve people might have attended the service, on another they may have only had three. Virginia Lehotsky confessed that there were times when she would feel quite depressed, wondering if the ministries would ever take off. However, she was always reassured by Harry, and his persistence and motivation. He firmly believed in the idea of urban ministry, and never doubted that the ministries would be successful in their mission.

To achieve this success, Harry took it upon himself to conduct a survey to understand what the community wanted. He found that rather then wanting a regular church, the people needed better schools, improved housing, and a place for community activities. These three needs became the focus of Harry’s efforts.

In the early days of the ministries, Harry spent time a lot of time creating a network throughout all of Winnipeg. He began to make personal contacts with many people in the community, including city hall, and many different agencies, always desiring to know what was happening in the society in which he lived. He also spent a lot of time reading at home, and was always looking to better his understanding and knowledge of his faith.

In February of 1985, a decision was made to identify the new church group as an inner city church, with a mission of service. [5] With a growing family, Harry and Virginia then realized that they would require the entire house to live in. They began looking for a place to rent on Sundays, and found a small church at 514 Maryland, not too far from their home on Ellice. The church had previously belonged to a Scottish Presbyterian group, but was now rented out to a Pentecostal group. Starting in October of 1986 it was rented to the New Life Ministries in the afternoons.

By 1987, The New Life Ministries was now operated out of the church on Maryland, and when the owners of the building decided to sell it, the Manitoba Baptist Association purchased it for the New Life Ministries.

Joining Up, Reaching Out

Throughout the following years, Harry became involved in many different community projects. He worked in John M. King School, located right across from his house, as a part of the parent council. Even before his first son started attending preschool, he was pressuring the school system to recreate the playground. From 1988 onwards, he was very involved with the elementary school, even serving as president of the parent council.

Harry made connections throughout the community, joining up with any group that he felt was combating an important issue. In 1991, the New Life Ministries started a community drop in centre called the “New Life Centre.” All community residents were encouraged to drop in, talk, use the computer or phone, play games, and have snacks. The program was staffed with about three volunteers per shift who manned the doors.

In 1993, the NLM expanded its facilities with a combination of donated land, financial donations from friends and attendees, and a grant from Employment and Immigration Canada. The donations and grants were especially encouraging, as the larger community had begun to recognize their work and the challenges they faced.

In the mid ‘90s the New Life Ministries set up a coffee house every Friday where bands could perform. Youth and adults alike were invited to the church to listen to music and relax. Virginia Lehotsky remembers how the coffee house was a great way to encourage people to do something else on a Friday night instead of partying, drinking, or using drugs. She points out that it had a very positive influence on many people, which Harry had not expected. The idea encouraged a sense of community spirit. It helped to establish friendships and communication between members of the community, which in turn led to reformation of many individuals. The NLM started up many different ministries, including men’s and women’s groups, an employment cooperative, a kids club, a youth group, and a community development group.

In 1996, Harry began to lead prayer walks. They would walk through the community, sometimes stopping to pray aloud, and sometimes praying silently. The group prayed with individuals on the street, outside of drug dens and crack-dealing arcades, and in empty houses, all with the conscious decision that by walking through the area they were inviting the intervention of God in the community. They hoped to inspire community members to take the first step needed in reform and rehabilitation, by reaching out a welcome hand to anyone who was in need. In the mid ‘90s, massage parlours were introduced in the west end, and Reverend Lehotsky was a big part of the fight against them. He shocked everyone by holding a prayer service inside a massage parlour, an event that made the evening news!

Although the New Life Ministries was a Baptist church, perhaps its strongest characteristic was that it would serve the people and the neighbourhood without any regard to an individual’s belief. Harry Lehotsky always offered his friendship and services of the ministry without any condition or pressure to come to church.

Lehotsky confronted drug problems in Winnipeg’s inner city.

Lehotsky confronted drug problems in Winnipeg’s inner city.
Source: New Life Ministries

Raising Homes from Squalor

In the Bible, there is a character by the name of Lazarus. Upon becoming really sick, Lazarus’s family approached Jesus, asking for him to save their loved one. By the time Jesus reached him, Lazarus had died. Jesus then raised Lazarus from the dead, and the man who was reborn became a symbol of rebirth and regeneration.

From the time, Harry moved to Winnipeg in 1983, one of the foremost problems in the west end was the issue of housing. Housing was steadily declining in the neighbourhood, and was in need of rehabilitation. Through his observations in the community, he learned that many apartment buildings were owned by absentee landlords (mainly from Ontario) who did not take proper care of the buildings. Many people living in these apartment buildings were surviving on welfare, which provided people with very little housing assistance, and the homes they had to live in were very poorly run.

Throughout his career, Harry lived right in the heart of the West End, refusing to move away from his place of work. This inspired many members of the New Life Ministries, stimulating a desire to find quality long term housing in the West End neighbourhood, instead of moving to other areas of the city. Harry recognized that for the community to grow, the population needed to stay in the area, instead of leaving as soon as possible. In order to achieve sustainable development in the community, people who reached success needed to stay and cycle money back into the area. As many members of the ministry started renovating their homes, they slowly picked up skills needed to refurbish houses. Volunteers from the church helped renovate eight area buildings. Several prayer walks through the neighbourhood led them to respond to the challenge of renovating an old gang house.

Under Harry’s leadership, the entire congregation agreed on the importance of revitalizing homes for ownership and improving rental housing and management. The formal housing ministry, Lazarus Housing, was then started. [6] The housing initiative was to raise homes from the squalor, and give them life again.

The first renovation began with a house on Beverley Street, which was donated by the government. It was renovated with $15,000 seed money from the Sill Foundation, and about two years of donated materials, funds and volunteer labour. The first project was extremely successful, and a great looking home was sold in the West End. [7] Lazarus wanted to move faster, and they were able to do so with funding from the Winnipeg Development Agreement. A contractor, Ralph Mueller, then gave up his own private contracting business to work with Lazarus full time. With the help of the Manitoba Baptist Association and the Royal Bank, Lazarus emerged into a full force housing project. They purchased derelict homes, renovated them, and then sold them to low income homeowners, who were committed to the community.

For Harry, it was important that the project also worked to employ local people, restore homes, and thus continue to build the dream of a healthy community. To this date, Lazarus housing has renovated and sold twenty, and another seven are underway. [8]

Nehemiah Housing

From Lazarus Housing emerged a concept for a new housing initiative. Throughout the years, Harry was always aware of the need for quality, affordable, supportive rental housing for people who were working hard to improve their lives. In 1998, Nehemiah housing was formed, a non-profit renovation company, established to provide emergency housing for people with little money, and who were considered high risk. Through the help of the Winnipeg Housing and Homeless Initiative, they renovated three apartment buildings in 2001 and another three in 2002. The apartment buildings had all been near to closure due to fires or building and health code violations, before they were bought by Nehemiah. [9]

Politics

Due to the nature of his work, Harry had been involved with politics throughout his career. In 1999, he decided to run formally in the Manitoba Provincial Elections, for the riding of Minto. Many community members wondered why the Reverend, known as the angel of the inner city, would choose to get involved with politics. His wife explained it very well. “Harry just wanted to do everything he could to make a difference.” It came as a huge shock however, when he decided to run as a Progressive Conservative. Many thought he should have run with the New Democratic Party, due to his social justice work and beliefs. Harry found, however, that his philosophy agreed more with that of the Conservatives. He really believed in giving a hand up, not a hand out, a concept that he felt the Conservative party advocated. After so many years working to rebuild the inner city community, he had come to understand the difference between the two.

However, his decision to run as a Conservative greatly affected the response of voters. Throughout his campaigning, Lehotsky found a pattern in the belief of many community residents. Although they admired the work he had done, and acknowledged that he could do so much more if he were to be elected, they would not vote for him because he was not an NDP candidate. Harry lost the election to NDP MaryAnn Mihychuk, who won 63% of the votes.

Losing the election was a disappointment to Harry, who felt that party initials had come to mean more then community involvement. Looking back at the election, Harry felt that the outcome was for the best. The loss of the election resulted in much more time for the ministries, and many great accomplishments to come.

Ellice Café and Theatre

In 2004, Harry took on one of his greatest projects yet. The government sold an old building on the corner of Ellice and Sherbrook for a very low price to Lazarus Housing. The building had earlier been home to an East Indian deli and pharmacy, as well as a theatre, which showed Bollywood movies. Upon the closure of the business, the government claimed the historic building. It then became a very special project to Harry Lehotsky and the New Life Ministries.

Lazarus Housing got to work on the building; the theatre space was renovated to create an accessible venue for affordable and positive leisure and entertainment and the attached café was restored. The café would seat around 60 people, and the theatre 230.

Harry hoped the theatre and café would provide subsidized low-income food service and jobs primarily for the residents of the NLM transitional housing program. He hoped that a community feeling would be developed, encouraging skill development through volunteering, job training, and employment. The business would also assist the New Life Ministries in providing community service without relying on operating funds from the government.

The theatre and café opened its doors in February of 2005. As Harry said, “it became a great place for white collar, blue collar, and no collar people to enjoy an affordable, quality meal.”

The Family Man

Despite his complete devotion to his work, the reverend always put his family first. Harry and his wife Virginia had three boys. Their oldest son Mathew was born on January 23rd of 1985, two years after the couple moved to Winnipeg. Twins Brandon and Jared were born in 1987, just as the New Life Ministries were opening their doors at the new church on Maryland Street.

Harry had a very special relationship with each of his sons. Virginia recalls how he never once missed a basketball game. It was his goal to raise his sons to be strong, independent men, and to find their own niche in life. While Virginia admits that she sometimes worried about raising her sons in the West End, she is also so appreciative of the many lessons that it has taught them. Despite facing certain challenges, they have developed an understanding of diversity and conflict resolution. For Harry, there was no other place he could live. He simply could not justify working to rebuild and sustain a community, and not residing in it. He could not accept any form of hypocrisy.

Virginia did often feel that Harry took on a lot of responsibility, but she never once stopped him. She always knew that Harry could handle whatever he took on. She, like many others, admired his passion for social justice.

Mathew Lehotsky is currently finishing his degree in Actuarial Science at the University of Manitoba, planning to graduate in 2007. Brandon and Jared only graduated from high school in 2006, but Brandon is interested in construction, and Jared is interested in education. Virginia Lehotsky always thought that her sons would move away from the West End neighbourhood. However, the three sons have recently purchased the house next door, which is the last house being renovated by Lazarus Housing. Despite the challenges faced in the West End, Harry’s sons have remained faithful to the neighbourhood, about which their father cared so much.

The Beginning of the End

Beginning in March 2006, Harry began to experience severe pain in his abdomen. On Easter weekend, the pain became unbearable, and Harry spent the day in urgent care. He returned home soon, after making a booking for a CT scan.

On Sunday, 14 May (Mothers Day), Virginia took Harry to the Health Sciences Emergency, due to increased pain in his abdomen. After settling in, Harry asked Virginia to return home and get some sleep. The next morning, on 15 May, Virginia, Mathew, and Associate Pastor Larry Gregan went to the hospital. The doctor had looked at Harry’s scans, and asked to speak to Harry alone first. He was told that he had pancreatic cancer. Virginia Lehotsky recalls waiting for the doctor to then tell her what treatment he would undergo, however, nothing came after. The cancer was terminal, and the doctor predicted that Harry had only between six weeks and nine months to live.

The next day Harry insisted on going back to work as usual. He woke up at his usual time of 4:30 am, and went to the church. For the next two months, Harry continued to work at his usual pace, refusing to yield to the cancer. As July approached, Harry became weaker. On 16 July Virginia and Harry finally decided to stop working, as they realized that time was short.

Harry was honoured that summer with a mural painted on the side of a Maryland street building. The building was renovated by Lazarus Housing, and sits beside the New Life Ministries. The mural depicts the work that the great reverend did throughout his entire life.

Never giving up, Harry continued to read sermons every Sunday at church services well into September. As the end approached, he would speak to the congregation while sitting on a small stool. He continued to publish columns for the Winnipeg Sun until 22 October. In the early morning of Saturday, 11 November 2006, Reverend Harry Lehotsky died at his home at age 49.

A mural painted in 2006 on the Lazarus Housing building in downtown Winnipeg paid homage to Lehotsky and his work.

A mural painted in 2006 on the Lazarus Housing building in downtown Winnipeg paid homage to Lehotsky and his work.
Source: New Life Ministries

A Lasting Legacy

While many human beings dream of making change, few achieve what they originally set out to do. It is a hard thing to stay true to the causes you are out to help. Reverend Harry Lehotsky did not just talk the talk, he walked the walk. He knew no boundaries in his fight to improve the quality of the inner city, and help the people who were in need. He was never afraid to voice his opinion about what he believed to be the hypocritical nature of government bureaucracies and organizations. Harry Lehotsky put visions into action and works before words, and the difference he made is visible throughout the community in which he lived.

The mural painted in honour of the reverend contains the words: “We may never live so intensely as when we love strongly. To understand things and people, we must love them. Walter Rauschenbauch”

Reverend Harry Lehotsky did just that. He loved everything he did, and everyone he worked with. He conducted his life with the common thread of hope, faith, and commitment. For that, the West End’s much-loved son will always be remembered, and his work will be continued.

Notes

All biographical information was obtained from personal interviews with Virginia Lehotsky, wife of Harry Lehotsky, on 18 January 2006, and with Jennifer Neufeld, a friend and employee at the Ellice Theatre and Café, on 16 January 2006.

1. North American Baptist Seminary “Staying In Touch” newsletter, January 2006. www.nabs.edu/leadership/index.php?id=162&parentid=143

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. “History of the New Life Ministries,” New Life Ministries, www.geocities.com/nlm514/history.html

5. Ibid.

6. “Lazarus Housing,” New Life Ministries, www.geocities.com/nlm514

7. Ibid.

8. Frontier Centre for Public Policy, “Harry Lehotsky, Inner City Preacher, Activist and Change Agent,” no. 75, 2006, www.fcpp.org/main/publication_detail.php?PubID=1442

9. “Nehemiah Housing,” New Life Ministries, www.geocities.com/nlm514

See also:

Memorable Manitobans: Harry Lehotsky (1957-2006)

Page revised: 30 May 2019

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