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Inner-city activist Harry Lehotsky was 'real deal'

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The Urban Saint

The Harry Lehotsky Story

By Paul H. Boge

Horizon Press, 340 pages, $25

A huge mural adorns an apartment block next to a church called New Life Ministries in Winnipeg's inner-city West End.

It portrays a smiling bearded man and a few urban scenes, a testament to a young preacher who dedicated his life to helping the marginalized people living in this crime-prone area.

Winnipeg writer Paul Boge has crafted a memorable tribute to a former New Yorker who had big-city cool, enviable panache and small-town swagger.

Preferring Harry to Rev. Lehotsky, he used all these assets while becoming an institution in his adopted city.

His impact is eulogized in the foreword to the book by Larry Updike, the former radio morning host who has recently accepted a position with an inner-city mission.

Similar tribute is paid by community leaders, including the mayor of Winnipeg and a former roommate from Harry's days at Baptist College in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Lehotsky's untimely death three years ago at age 49 ended a two-decade long crusade to build a safer community.

Area residents nicknamed him "the urban saint" for his tireless work in exposing drug dealers, sexual predators and an ineffective welfare system.

The face of social conscience in the West End and an in-your-face community activist, he was also an irritant for complacent municipal and provincial officials and even an unsuccessful candidate in a provincial election.

"He was too radical," Boge writes, "too compassionate, too loving, and too fearless to be anything but the real deal."

The Urban Saint is not a conventional biography but a series of connected and engaging chronicles.

An engineer by profession, Boge was approached to write the book by some Christian businessmen in Winnipeg, probably because he had written other books reflecting upon society and relationships with God.

The Chicago Healer (2003), won a Christian award for best new Canadian writer. After teaching at an orphanage in Kenya, he wrote Father to the Fatherless (2005), a true story about a rags-to-riches African who uses his wealth to better the lives of Kenyan slum children.

Boge himself was born and raised in Winnipeg but only had one casual meeting with Harry. However, his writing reveals familiarity with a subject, and comfort with its theme.

He recognizes that Jesus was the inspiration behind Lehotsky's passion and reveals how his humanity endeared him to his eclectic community.

The book has a comfortable balance of religious musings and examples of secular social action. For Lehotsky, prayer was always an integral part of organizing pickets against massage parlours and crack houses.

With no church building and no congregation when he arrived in Winnipeg in 1983, Lehotsky and his wife, Virginia, eventually built New Life Ministries, largely by approaching new immigrants, prostitutes and drug users and inviting them to a weekly Bible study at their home.

Renovating abandoned eyesores and seedy apartment buildings served to address the problem of homelessness, often with minimal municipal or provincial aid, but with maximum volunteer efforts.

These refurbished buildings, including the Ellice Café and Theatre (formerly the drugstore and the Cinema 3 movie theatre on the corner of Ellice and Sherbrook), are a testament to his accomplishments.

The final two chapters are especially poignant, relating the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and revealing two letters from a former drug user and a former prostitute.

Shortly before his death, accompanied by Virginia and their three sons, Lehotsky spoke at a testimonial dinner and fundraiser held in his honour.

He joked that if he lived for a long time, he hoped no one expected to get their money back.

This book is an absolute must-read for anyone with a social conscience, or perhaps a religious one.

Like Beatrice Culleton's In Search of April Raintree, it is mainly a local story, but its universal themes should appeal to a wider readership.

The publisher's decision to use symbols in place of crude and salty language common in many books hardly diminishes the message, and the numerous typos and grammatical errors are mere distractions.

Joseph Hnatiuk is a retired Winnipeg teacher who is partial to the Ellice Café.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 28, 2009 H10

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