Fr. Jean-Pierre has found purpose in a new ministry: finding and fixing shoes for homeless people.
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Fr. Jean-Pierre Couturier is a priest and a cobbler. Both are late vocations that this man of faith and action has fully embraced. The first, he embraced at the age of 42, and the second, two years later.
On a recent Monday, the pastor of the Mary Help of Christians mission church, an Italian-speaking parish in Quebec, is enjoying a rather quiet morning. But make no mistake: he’s a busy man.
“For the past two years, I’ve been entrusted with the Domenico Savio mission, to which I have added the care of an English-speaking community. There, I’m mainly in charge of the administration. That’s why my Thursdays are important!” he says.
In fact, Father Jean-Pierre devotes his Thursdays to another mission, called “P’tit Père,” or “Little Father”—the shoe repair and distribution project he has set up.
It all began in 1998, when the priest and former singer was assigned to Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral in Montreal. There he met a homeless man, Jean-Paul.
“He was always at the cathedral,” says Fr. Couturier, “a very devout man. One day, some parishioners came up to me and said, ‘Jean-Paul doesn’t smell very good, can you do something?'”
The priest invited him aside and asked him to take off his shoes. He then discovered that he had gangrene.
Letting necessities lead the way
Food, clothing, blankets: many associations already respond to these needs. Solutions for giving shoes to the homeless, however, are almost non-existent.
So the vicar racked his brains for a solution. As he likes to remind people, it’s good to let ourselves be led by the necessities that manifest themselves.
“I was in the city center where there were very elegant shoe sellers. I noticed businessmen coming in to buy new pairs and leaving the old ones to be thrown away. So I went to the back of the stores and asked if I could keep what the customers were leaving behind.”
At first, he cleaned and patched the shoes to donate to The Father’s House, a shelter for homeless men in Montreal. Fr. Jean-Pierre would give the shoes to those waiting for a reply to their applications to be housed in a closed shelter. During his rounds, he also collected shoes for women and children that he entrusted to the St. Vincent de Paul Society or to parishes.
His shoe repairing skills were developed on the job. He says, “I learned from Gislain Anctil, a shoemaker who worked near the cathedral. Whenever I needed something, I went to see him.”
Eventually, to save money, the priest asked the shoemaker to teach him how to do the work on his own.
A few years later, the priest received the help of another cobbler who had closed his store because the work was becoming too much for him. This was a blessing for Fr. Jean-Pierre. “I received a compressor (necessary for the treatment of leather), a lathe for cleaning, and many other things. It was extraordinary!”
Since then, the priest and the few volunteers who surround him follow a regular weekly routine:
First, we pick up what people have left behind. Then we sort out what will go to the Father’s House, to the different destinations … Then comes the repair stage. We wash, glue or reinforce the soles. Some pairs have been discarded because a small scratch makes the shoe lose its initial elegance; for them, not much needs to be done.
The last step is distribution. The shoes are sent to the north of Montreal or to parishes on the city’s island. Recently, they’ve been sent to Haiti as well.
A unique pastoral ministry
The parish priest is often amused when some people think that his vocation is a way to prolong the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday. “I started because the work to which the Lord leads us when we become priests is something less tangible. I needed something concrete. On the other hand, it forced me to exercise,” he confesses with a laugh. “The walk to get the shoes gives me a good hour and a half of exercise!”
Whether it’s cold or sunny, during vacations or not, the Little Father, as a shopkeeper nicknamed him, collects shoes. He makes it a point to greet and visit his suppliers. Since the pandemic, some of the 20 or so stores he partnered with have closed down and others have become reluctant to hold on to customers’ used shoes for him to recycle.
Yet he remains faithful to these meetings. “It’s been a certain form of pastoral care,” explains Fr. Jean-Pierre Couturier. “I once lent a store manager a Youcat because she was wondering about confirmation. We persevered together and she received the sacrament. Others have questions which sometimes only the Church is able to answer.”
Fortunately, he can count on many saints to support his mission. “St. Benedict and his rule of Ora et Labora inspire me a lot, probably in this aspect of concrete, simple things that must be done. And then, I’m intimately linked to the monastery of St. Peter of Solesmes.”
Indeed, he had collaborated with the abbey in Sarthe, France, during his first calling in life as a musician. The figure of St. James, whose paths he walked as a pilgrim, and the Virgin Mary also accompany him.
As the summer goes on, the rhythm of the cobbler of the homeless will slow down. His prayer remains the same: “That there be fewer and fewer people on the street who need the Little Father.”