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Fr. Claude, the formerly homeless priest who wants to accompany the homeless “until I die”

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Bérengère Dommaigné - Matthew Green - published on 03/12/22

This priest from Quebec devotes himself fully to the poor, after having spent years himself as a homeless alcoholic.

Fr. Claude Paradis is a priest from Quebec who devotes himself fully to the homeless, after having spent years himself as a homeless alcoholic. He shared his moving testimony in a 5-minute video, filmed against a simple black backdrop, as a part of “Fragments,” an original web series produced by Arte (a European cultural channel with content primarily in French and German).

Fr. Claude tells the story of a life that began with suffering and was eventually transformed after he had a spiritual encounter with Christ in a church.

After the death of his grandfather, he discovered alcohol at the age of 13 and until the age of 33 he says he lived “a long way of the cross.”

In a 2018 interview with the Montreal Gazette (well worth a full read), Fr. Claude recounts a key moment of his path. He had attempted suicide three times and and was in a psychiatric hospital feeling totally lost. One night he wandered into Our Lady of Lourdes Church. “I got on my knees and told God, ‘You have two choices: either take my life or give it meaning,’” he recalls.

That was a turning point. He ended up going on a retreat at a friend’s invitation, and that was when, he says in the Fragments video, “my faith came back.”

When he entered the seminary, “I had quite a look, with my long hair and my hunting shirt,” he jokes, and at that time he wondered how he would serve as a priest. But he understood, thanks to a poignant encounter with a young homeless man who was dying, that his vocation as a priest would be to return to the streets. “He told me, ‘No one ever watched me live, would you watch me die?’ I stayed there with him,” says Fr. Claude. “Before dying, he said, ‘You’re here helping me now, but who’s going to help everyone else in the street?’” It’s a vocation that made him understand what the greatest poverty was: “To not be a person for anyone.”

“I got off the street, and I went back because the street teaches me about the Church,” he explains. “I’m a simple priest, a former homeless man, and since I was 33 years old, I’ve been a priest on the street. And I will be on the street until I die, quite simply.”

And when he dies, he told the Montreal Gazette, he wants to be buried with Montreal’s unclaimed bodies —”often sex workers, the homeless, or isolated seniors who’ve died alone”— for whom Fr. Clause himself celebrates a funeral each year. “That’s my group, my gang, my family and friends,” he says to the Gazette. “I should be with them.”

The name of Fr. Claude’s ministry, which he founded in 2013, is Notre-Dame de la rue (Our Lady of the Street). He and his volunteers focus on reaching out to the homeless where they live, providing food and drink, and, most importantly, offering their personal presence and love. Sometimes he also hears their confessions, whether in a park or in a drug house.

Fr. Claude hasn’t let the pandemic stop his work; Le Journal de Montréal reported in 2020 that he continued despite the risks.

“Someone told me at one point that all I had to do was stay inside, while he was outside,” he told the newspaper. “Another person told me that his next roof would be his coffin. How do you expect me to stay at home when I hear that?” Unsurprisingly, he ended up catching COVID-19, but after he recovered he was back on the streets.

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