In 1962, the first St. Leonard’s Half-way home opened its doors in Windsor to welcome men who had spent time behind bars and needed a secure haven to make a clean start. A practical and determined Anglican priest by the name of Thomas Neil Libby saw the need for a re-entry residence that would help former prisoners navigate the passage from incarceration to freedom making it easier for himself and safer for the community. Libby was struck by the profound tragedy of the formerly incarcerated. Soon after leaving prison most would backslide into their former ways and associations. It was a time when as many as 80% of those completing prison terms found themselves once again standing in front of judges facing new charges.
Libby saw prisons as ineffective, dehumanizing places of despair, often little more than “graduate schools of crime.” The so-called “correctional” system undermined a person’s dignity and hope which inevitably led to more anger, frustration, and violence towards themselves or towards other cell-mates and society. 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.”
Neil Libby was inspired by a sixth-century French monk named Leonard. Legend has it that Leonard saved the life of King Theodobert’s Queen. The King had taken his wife deer hunting in the forest of Pauvian. At the time, the Queen was in the later stages of pregnancy, and, during the chase, the Queen experienced labor pains. Leonard lived close by and was called to the aid of the Queen. Later, he was credited with saving both the lives of the Queen and her newborn daughter, Bertoara. Out of gratitude, the King granted Leonard a huge tract of land where he built a monastery named Noblac; it was later transformed into a halfway house for prisoners. The King had such confidence in Leonard’s ability to deal firmly but compassionately with offenders. He allowed him to take prisoners under his care at Noblac and then release them when they had proved themselves ready. Leonard eventually became the patron saint of prisoners.
The Anglican All Saints Church in Windsor, where Neil Libby had been the curate assistant, supported the creation of the first halfway house in Canada for people released from prison. 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. Neil 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.
Neil 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. When the first St. Leonard’s House was proposed in Windsor, 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.
Windsor city council threw two other curves at the early organizers by first insisting on an expensive fire-protection system for the house which would almost double the home’s original costs and then to make matters worse, a planned motion to re-zone the property. Town counselors could change the land-use bylaw only if the site was vacant. The early organizers realized, however, that rezoning could not be retroactive. Quickly, they moved a few former prisoners onto the couches and floor at 491 Victoria Avenue, the downtown location chosen for the halfway home, thwarting the rezoning threat. Attitudes would gradually change and a few years later, the council would approve the opening of the house and provide a $3,500.00 operating grant.
By 1967, the St. Leonard’s Society of Canada was founded to expand upon work begun in a halfway home in Windsor. 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.
St. Leonard’s Society gives people who have been in trouble with the law a place to live and an opportunity to remove the stigma of being a former prisoner through guidance, counseling, and understanding. The St. Leonard’s Society of Canada continues its work in response to the changing social justice climate in Canada.