In the early 1960s, Reverend Thomas Neil Libby of All Saints Anglican Church in Windsor, Ontario was noticing the revolving door of people coming in and out of the prison system. At that time, approximately 80% of people released from prison would return. He recognized a need for a support system to help these people take their place in society once again.
Libby saw prisons as ineffective, dehumanizing places of despair, often little more than “graduate schools of crime.” The so-called “correctional” system undermined a people’s dignity and hope, which inevitably led to more anger, frustration, and violence towards themselves and/or others. Libby believed in the infinite worth of every human being as God’s creation worthy of forgiveness and acceptance. He was concerned with “man’s growth as a human being and his dignity as a child of God.” He acknowledged that communities would not achieve the desired public safety results if they continued to diminish the value of people who had been in conflict with the law and further exclude them from society. So, Libby, along with many community members, began setting up Canada’s first halfway house.
The Anglican All Saints Church in Windsor, where Libby had been the curate assistant, supported the creation of the halfway house. Organizational and financial help soon flowed in from other religious denominations. The St. Vincent de Paul Society, who served the poor and others in troubled situations, had also been thinking about setting up a halfway house for people being released from prison. Instead of proceeding independently with their plans, they and the London Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church sent a generous contribution to the struggling St. Leonard’s organizing committee. Members of the Jewish community also became involved. He was quoted saying, “You see…the fact is that this must not be solely an Anglican or All Saints’ kind of development… It must transcend that… It must be supported by all segments of the community”. Libby made it clear he was building a social support system that transcended parochial and denominational boundaries. He and the other St. Leonard’s organizers fostered a warm and sincere spirit of cooperation among those of differing faiths which complemented the beginnings of the ecumenical movement in Canada.
When the house was first proposed, it was greeted with extraordinary resistance. Neighborhoods and local politicians rallied against the idea of housing “ex-cons.” They waved fists in town meetings, screamed telephone threats to Board members, and wrote angry letters to newspaper editors describing the dangers and risks to their wives and children, property values and business income. This only strengthened the resolve of the founding members and convinced them of the importance of their mission.
Despite the opposition, the first St. Leonard’s halfway house opened its doors in 1962. It welcomed men who had spent time behind bars and who needed a safe and supportive place to make a clean start. The home took its name from Leonard, a French monk who later became the patron saint of prisoners because of the monastery he transformed into a halfway house for prisoners in the sixth century. Libby and his supporters developed their vision of helping people to rehabilitate in a social climate where formerly incarcerated people were regarded as unfit and undeserving of any support. After a few years of successful residential service operation, it was clear that the work that had begun in Windsor was meeting a need that existed throughout the country and the founders were faced with the issue of expansion. It was determined that a national group was needed, so in 1967, St. Leonard’s Society of Canada (SLSC) was founded.
SLSC’s original objectives were to:
Assist in the development of Community Residential Centres
Study legislation and engage in penal/correctional reform
Liaise with government bodies and legal authorities
Establish minimum standards for Member Community Residential Centres
Conduct, on a national basis, public education and fundraising, including government funding of Member Community Residences
Incorporate evaluation and research in all of these programs, and
To operate the National Corporation.
Over the years, St. Leonard’s Society of Canada gained an affiliation of halfway homes and a degree of public and governmental support in its efforts to advocate for social and criminal justice issues. In the Society’s archives are letters of support from prominent Canadians such as Lester B. Pearson, Eugene Whelan, John P. Robarts, and Herb Gray. Today, St. Leonard’s Society of Canada continues its work in response to the changing social and criminal justice climate in Canada.