This article was published 19/11/2016 (1195 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The mural looms large over the neighbourhood where Rev. Harry Lehotsky once ministered.
It’s a larger-than-life portrait of a man who was a larger-than-life figure in the community.
Gracing the exterior of an apartment building on Maryland Street between Ellice and Sargent avenues, the mural features Lehotsky in the prime of his life surrounded by images of the neighbourhood he helped and some of the projects he brought to fruition in the West End.
There’s the restaurant he saw as a way to bring together people from all social classes over dinner.
There are houses he renovated to encourage people to move back to the area and stop its slow decline.
There are the people themselves who, above all else, the founding pastor of New Life Ministries wanted to help with a hand up instead of a handout.
This past Nov. 11 wasn’t just a chance to mark Remembrance Day, it was also an opportunity to reflect on the decade that has passed since Lehotsky died, a few short months after a terminal diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
His funeral drew almost 2,000 mourners, including dignitaries such as then-premier Gary Doer and then-mayor Sam Katz.
They watched a 33-minute video eulogy by Lehotsky himself, taped before his death.
But 10 years after Lehotsky’s untimely death, what has become of the church he founded with his wife? The projects he started in the neighbourhood?
And most importantly, the neighbourhood itself?
Harry Lehotsky was born in 1957 and raised in New York City. He came to Winnipeg in the early 1980s.
While a teenager in New York, Lehotsky overdosed on heroin and was abandoned, unconscious, on a street by his friends. He was found by police, and while recovering in hospital decided to turn his life around. He began studying theology a few years after graduating from high school.
Later, he was speaking at a Baptist conference in Niagara Falls, when a Winnipegger heard Lehotsky and invited him back to help the inner city. When Lehotsky got here, he became founding pastor of New Life Ministries.
But unlike many ministers, who tended mostly to the needs of their own flock at their churches, Lehotsky wanted to better the area where his parishioners lived.
During his time with New Life, Lehotsky helped create Lazarus Housing, which renovated dilapidated and neglected homes and then sold them to people committed to the neighbourhood, and Nehemiah Housing, which had what was described on its website as "quality, affordable, supportive rental housing for people who were working hard to improve their lives."
He was also leading New Life when it bought the buildings on the corner of Ellice Avenue and Sherbrook Street — which housed Cinema 3 and a corner store at the time — and converted them into the Ellice Café and Theatre.
There was New Life Ministries itself, which grew from prayer sessions in his own home to a permanent church building on Maryland Street.
Some were surprised when Lehotsky’s wife, Virginia, not only stayed in Winnipeg after his death, but also stayed in the family home in the east end of the West End.
Virginia was originally from Sioux Falls, S.D. She met her husband there while he was at the North American Baptist Seminary, and said that after his death, she never considered moving. Not only were her three sons at home, but she also likes the neighbourhood.
"I like (that) there’s a lot of people doing the same things there," she said.
"With housing, more people are seeing it’s viable to come there. Yes, it’s not the most affluent area in Winnipeg, but it is a good area. People still say the neighbourhood has gone down since Harry died, but that’s not true."
Virginia said there was surprise she didn’t step into her husband’s shoes at New Life Ministries, but she was working as an accounting clerk at the Addictions Foundation Manitoba, and filling his role wasn’t her calling.
"I was the pastor’s wife and I’m not the pastor’s wife anymore. I think people thought I would be taking over, but I wasn’t capable of that."
The person who is in Lehotsky’s shoes these days is Curtis Halbesma, the current pastor of New Life Ministries. He started working there part time in 2011 and became full time in 2013.
Halbesma arrived at a low point for both the church and the entities Lehotsky had helped create.
"They were hurting," Halbesma said.
"They had 100 suites. A restaurant. A theatre. Plus a church. And the number of people coming there were shrinking. Harry was an initiator and go-getter and a justice guy. But he wasn’t a long-term strategist.
"Whether Harry was alive or not, the question of how things would continue would still have been there."
Lost in all he did for the community was Lehotsky’s work as a religious man, Halbesma said.
"I don’t think Harry was just about community renewal. It was about bringing the message of Jesus to the neighbourhood," he said.
"He wanted to help people so he was working with people who needed help."
Halbesma said he also knows where Lehotsky was coming from.
"Like Harry, I’ve found how easy it is to fall in love with the people here," he said.
Halbesma said where once New Life, through its Lazarus and Nehemiah projects, bought, renovated, and then looked over 100 suites, including apartments and single family homes, it has divested itself down to 49 suites, all of which are in the apartment buildings on either side of New Life Ministries itself.
The end of Lazarus Housing was not a negative story, he said, noting it helped spark renewal.
"Other organizations started coming in to the neighbourhood and renovating houses," he said.
"And you could no longer come in and buy a house for cheap. It got the neighbourhood going and it has gentrified the neighbourhood."
Larry Gregan was there the day Lazarus Housing was inspired.
Gregan was co-pastor with Lehotsky at New Life starting in 1997.
"I remember it was a Wednesday afternoon because New Life always had prayer walks on Wednesdays," Gregan said.
"Harry would tell people about issues in the neighbourhood and then we would walk. We walked to Langside Street between Sargent and Ellice and he said ‘Look at this,’ and he pointed to three houses close to each other with For Sale signs. He said ‘look at the ones beside it’. They were boarded up.
"He said ‘the boards went up and then the For Sale signs went up. And when families move out, the enrolment rates for the schools go down and then people would look at the schools and not want to move to the neighbourhood.’
"That’s what galvanized the direction of getting involved in housing in the area."
Gregan said it didn’t surprise him New Life chose to wind up Lazarus after Lehotsky died — but he said that was always part of the plan.
"Lazarus was never intended to be long term," he said.
"The intention of New Life to get into housing was to get out of housing. A healthy neighbourhood would include being an economically healthy neighbourhood. It would not need assistance."
Gregan said he knows first-hand how housing has improved in the neighbourhood because he still lives there. The house he bought for $9,000 has now been assessed at $229,000.
"But we didn’t buy a house for an anticipated investment. It was where we wanted to live."
Through the years they worked together, the roles of Gregan and Lehotsky evolved to the point where Gregan was in charge of the day-to-day ministering of New Life, allowing Lehotsky to carry on his work in the community.
He continued as pastor of New Life for three years after Lehotsky’s death.
"I say that after Harry died I inherited half of my job and half of Harry’s job — but the church needed the other two halves."
Gregan said his working relationship with Lehotsky was special.
"Harry and I said we were lifers," he said.
"The average time a Protestant minister spends in a church is under five years. But most people will say in other endeavours you’re just getting started after five years. Even the year before Harry got sick we were joking around that I guess one of us is going to bury the other guy.
"We both liked that. We were lifers. We lived in the neighbourhood and we were serving.
"But it wasn’t a joke a year later."
Gregan said during the weeks between Lehotsky’s diagnosis and his death, the pair had many conversations about New Life and what should happen after Lehotsky was gone.
"The one thing we knew for sure early on was it wouldn’t be the best thing to introduce a new person to the grieving family New Life would be. We knew we’d have to bring somebody else in, but not right away.
"Sometimes I wonder if we would have thought differently looking back."
There’s also no going back for Gregan himself. A few years after his colleague’s death, he left the church to go on a sabbatical.
"It was planned before Harry died," Gregan said.
"It ended up being delayed for a year because the community was still dealing with Harry’s death. But finally, even the board said I needed to take time off."
But the sabbatical turned into him being a full-time stay-at-home dad, which later also became another change.
"I’m now Ukrainian Catholic. There’s no going back to being a Baptist minister," he said chuckling.
Halbesma said New Life was forced to shutter the Ellice Café because it was losing too much money.
"It was sad to shut it down, but it had to happen. But we didn’t just want to sell it to anybody. We wanted to sell it to somebody who had a business plan well thought through," he said.
"We didn’t want them to go bankrupt."
Halbesma said New Life worked diligently for almost two years to find a new owner for the buildings that once contained its Ellice Café, the adjacent theatre, and the housing upstairs.
In the end, the pastor said they chose four people: Christa Bruneau-Guenther — who owns The Feast Café Bistro in the former Ellice Cafe — and who, along with actor Adam Beach, Jim Compton, and Jeremy Torrie, owns the entire building that now houses the Adam Beach Film Institute and a theatre.
"We were most pleased to sell it to them," Halbesma said.
Bruneau-Guenther said The Feast’s first year of operation has been "really good.
"Definitely Harry’s connection to the community and his vision for the building and the community itself is huge inspiration to me. And we’ve been very well received.
"I have so many people who come through here that were faithful to the Ellice Café and are so thankful with what we’ve done. They’ve become my customers as well.
"I feel like (Lehotsky) is always watching over us. His legacy lives on in the people."
Bruneau-Guenther said she was operating a day care, but had always wanted to run a restaurant when she and her partners put forward a proposal to New Life.
"New Life said we’ve been praying for the right group to come," she said.
"I started bawling when they said they were praying for me."
Bruneau-Guenther said she sees her mission as actually more than just serving meals.
"Yes, it’s about paying the bills, but it’s also helping people," she said. "Employing people. Promoting creativity.
"We want to be a pillar in the West End. And the more businesses, the more the community will grow."
Virginia Lehotsky said the various entities that were created by her husband to help the area in the end "was a lot for all of us.
"We kept the café open as long as we could," she said. "We went into debt over it.
"Any other business looking at our numbers would have said just close it. But I can say in all confidence we did the best we could."
Travis Unger, who owns Unger Properties and Unger Management, was one of the people New Life came to when it was ready to divest itself of most of its rental housing. New Life knew Unger was already helping the people in the neighbourhood and was confident he’d continue in a manner similar to Lehotsky’s vision.
Unger said they bought two apartment buildings from New Life, one with five two-bedroom suites and the other with 10 one-bedroom suites.
"We made a business plan and made an application," he said. "We wanted to protect the low-income people there and we wanted to keep it low-income housing.
"We figure we are carrying on the torch of what Harry wanted to do."
Unger said the province’s rent supplement program allows them to keep the rent for tenants at 27 per cent of their income.
"The buildings aren’t really making money, in fact one is losing money, but in the end it all works out," he said. "We want to help people better their lives.
"We are living our faith there."
Unger said he has also seen the neighbourhood change for the better since he began buying properties and fixing them up in 1996.
"It’s a very different world now because you used to get them for a few thousand dollars," he said. "Nineteen ninety-nine was the trough of the market — in hindsight we should have bought the whole block.
"But now, I don’t want to see the next chapter being the low-income people moving out and not get the benefit of the improved neighbourhood. This gives them the chance to stay here and benefit from the improved neighbourhood."
Jamil Mahmood is executive director of the Spence Neighbourhood Association. For several years the association acquired lots and built new infill housing.
"They (New Life) did a lot of work renovating homes and we built them," Mahmood said.
"Today the number of derelict houses and the number of empty lots have gone down."
Mahmood said in 2000 there were 300 derelict buildings in the neighbourhood, but now there are under 100.
"We’ve made a major improvement on housing," he said. "You can tell it with the values of property now. We used to get lots for free and now lots are worth between $55,000 to $70,000. As a result, we’ve stopped building infill lots.
"But anyone walking through here after 20 years would say it is a different place today."
Mahmood said the association is now working on its next five-year plan and part of its focus will be to address the positive and negative effects that the help given by organizations like Spence Neighbourhood and New Life has left on the area.
"Now we have to protect our neighbourhood from gentrification. We don’t want to displace people. Low-income people should have a place here," he said.
"We need to figure out how to keep our community and let it grow at the same time."
Gloria Cardwell-Hoeppner, executive director of the West End Business Improvement Zone, said if Lehotsky was suddenly to appear and walk through the neighbourhood he wouldn’t recognize it.
"The neighbourhood has changed so much," Cardwell-Hoeppner said.
"He put down some incredible groundwork to lead to change. We have our challenges, but every community does... the neighbourhood didn’t turn bad overnight and it won’t get better overnight."
Cardwell-Hoeppner said the area has seen 94 new businesses open since January 2015.
"I think (Lehotsky) would be very proud of how the community has stepped up. But he’d also tell us there’s still work to do."
Trudy Turner was executive director of the West End Business Improvement Zone when Lehotsky was around and worked with him on several projects.
"He was a fierce proponent of the area and whatever he did he did with every bit of himself," Turner said.
"He did a great job with Lazarus Housing. The Ellice Café and Theatre was good too."
The final project Turner completed with Lehotsky was aptly the mural of him itself.
"He loved the mural," she recalled.
"We worked together with him on the whole project. He was really thrilled with it. But it took a long time to convince him to do it. He thought it was a little much.
"I said to him you can come along with it so we know what you’d like, or we can do it later. He agreed to do it then and I’m glad he did."
Turner said another project she was working on — but Lehotsky died when it was in its formation — was to rid the area of prostitution by targeting the Johns in the area.
Turner, who is now a real estate agent, said the West End area is still a very inexpensive area to buy a house compared to many neighbourhoods elsewhere in the city.
"It is still one of the worst perceived areas, but it is becoming a nice neighbourhood for younger families and newcomers," she said.
Turner said even at the time and years later there are people who either loved or hated Lehotsky and what he was doing.
"He either inspired people to get on the bandwagon or he brought enough conflict to get them to say ‘OK, I will do something my way to show you’. Either way, it helped the area," she said.
"And he always had respect for people who disagreed with him."
Turner said she counts herself as not always being in agreement with Lehotsky.
"There were several things we had fierce disagreements over, but afterwards we’d have coffee and settle it. We became good friends."
Turner said one of the things Lehotsky was strongest on was it should be the community that pulls itself up and not organizations filled with people paid by government coffers.
Matthew Lehotsky is the oldest of Harry’s three sons. The others are Jared and Brandon.
Interestingly, while their father and mother were born elsewhere and came to Winnipeg to begin New Life Ministries, the three sons all still live in the neighbourhood where they grew up. One of the boys lives in the house next door to his mother, another lives across the street from the church the family started, and Matthew is at most a 10-minute walk away.
Matthew has seen through his entire life how the neighbourhood continues to improve. And now, as a homeowner, Matthew has seen what an improved neighbourhood means not only for house prices but for property taxes.
"I’m anxious to see what happens here," he said. "Housing values are steadily increasing here.
"When we bought our house I jokingly said ‘thanks Dad.’"
Matthew said the West End neighbourhood is becoming more gentrified, with more students and others moving in, but it is also a place where new immigrants come when they first move to Winnipeg.
"It really is a diverse area," he said. "You go to the playground and you see kids from all sorts of ethnicities.
"That is really cool to see."
Matthew believes his father’s legacy isn’t so much what he did while he was alive, but what has happened to the neighbourhood since his death.
"That people would be inspired to pick up where he left off, places like the Adam Beach Film Institute. Maybe that’s his legacy."
Virginia said she also sees her husband’s legacy when she takes a walk through the neighbourhood.
"I’m reminded when I see the houses that were done. I remember the people and the stories behind it. The battles he had to get them.
"And seeing people. The people in our church and in our back lane. The bottom line is he cared deeply about them and sharing the love."
It’s an irony that while New Life Ministries wanted to help people by renovating what would be rental properties in the neighbourhood, it also helped itself by making a profit when it sold them, as well as from the sale of the buildings that contained the Ellice Café. It also still has past donations sent to support its efforts.
But Halbesma said New Life wants to make sure that money still goes back to help people in the next few years, not the next few decades.
"We set most of the money aside. People contributed money to help the West End and we want to honour them. We are now trying to figure out how to use it to help people. How to help other charities in the city who could use a lot of cash to take a step.
"We want to dispose of the money smartly. We cannot give money to a person or a non-profit."
Because the people who contributed the money are still around, Halbesma said the church also wants to give away the money in the next 10 to 15 years while they are alive.
Halbesma said the church Lehotsky began is still helping people in the area and beyond in non-traditional ways.
"We operate Connect 2 — a voice-mail program for people who can’t afford telephones," he said.
"When you’re trying to get a job you need a phone for someone to leave a message. This way they can and we have 1,000 clients right now."
In the end, Halbesma said New Life Ministries "is trying to do what we can do and to do it well.
"Harry did what God wanted him to do and when his time was done God took him home."
For Virginia Lehotsky, the biggest hole in the neighbourhood is the one that no amount of community planning can fill — the loss of her husband of 24 years.
"When you’re married to someone who is also your best friend, is is a huge loss. If something happens, I don’t have that voice to talk to.
"But there’s nothing now that I can’t do that comes my way. I am content now. But I know it has been 10 years now."
Virginia said if her husband was still alive she knows the neighbourhood would have continued to improve, but she doesn’t know whether he also would also have had to divest the entities he created.
"I can’t predict the future," she said laughing.
"Maybe he would have, but maybe not. The café, for example, didn’t have a liquor licence. Would that have kept it afloat? I don’t know."
Virginia doesn’t know what new projects her husband would have created in the neighbourhood, but she points to a new one such as Naomi House, a Christian-operated transitional facility for new immigrants, as something in the same spirit as Lehotsky’s ideas.
"It’s helping the people who need help," she said.
"That’s what Harry did."
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.
Updated on Saturday, November 19, 2016 at 3:07 PM CST: Fixed quote.