Growth Was 'Just Meant To Be'

"I've done a lot of things on faith and I figured that if God wants something to happen, he won't let anything interfere."


Father Paul Charbonneau moves a bit slowly these days. But at age 86, you can still see the firebrand in the man who was willing to use words and a well-placed fist if necessary to get the job done.

The founder of Brentwood was himself affected by alcoholism - as a young boy, he grew up with a father who suffered from the disease.

"My dad was a good man who started work when he was about 14 or 15. In those days, you lived hard lives. People drank."

Charbonneau worked for his father in the summer, where his dad drank on the job. He had his own electrician business. "It wasn't nice to be around him," recalls the priest. "I took it personally, even though I shouldn't have. I became angry."

He attended church every day and decided he wanted to become a priest, or a monk or a missionary. "People didn't expect that of me," he says, chuckling. "I was known as a bit mixed up. I battled between my anger and my desire to be closer to God. I guess I wanted an escape."

After Charbonneau joined the priesthood, he began to teach religion in parish schools. He soon noticed the signs of the same disease that had plagued his father causing suffering in the children he taught.

"You could see it in their eyes. You could see fear, sadness and a void."

The priest went to visit these children in their homes, where, invariably, their mothers answered the door with that same haunted look in their eyes. "They were afraid of what their husbands would say. 'He's liable to hurt you', they'd warn me. But I wasn't afraid."

Fr. Charbonneau began to meet members of Alcoholics Anonymous in London and Chatham. He would bring them to visit the families of those alcoholics he hoped to help.

A stint in military after the war reinforced his desire to help. He worked with the servicemen and their commanders, who frequently spent their downtime at the canteen drinking. "One sergeant who ran a canteen told me I was costing him business," Charbonneau says, laughing.

After serving six years as a chaplain, he returned to parish work in the Windsor and Essex County area and continued to help those afflicted by alcoholism and finally decided that a more permanent solution was needed. In 1964, "a group of us started Charity House in Windsor. Charity meant 'love'," he explains.

"We wanted to help the guys who were living on the street who needed love."

In order to do so, "we rented a vacant restaurant. The people we were trying to help were suspicious," he recalls. "They thought we were do-gooders who want to throw a net over them."

Instead, he explained the purpose and invited the homeless to leave their street corners, alleys and niches under the Peabody Bridge to stay warm and safe for the night.

Local restaurants provided food and the AA alumni whom Charbonneau knew chatted with the men about their problems.

"At first we gave them just supper. Then, it became breakfast. We decided we needed a bigger place and bought a building behind the Peerless Ice Cream parlour in Old Walkerville.

'We won them over'

Reaction from the neighbourhood was negative. "We had to go door-to-door and explain what we hoped to do. We won them over."

"I've done a lot of things on faith and I figured that if God wants something to happen, he won't let anything interfere."

Fr. Charbonneau was joined by Jim and Kay Ryan. "They showed up to help with the renovation and stayed to help me run the place." The Ryans eventually sold their home in Emeryville and took up residence in the upstairs of Charity House and along with Father Paul, were the co-founders of Brentwood.

Able to sleep 50 and feed 100 to 150 people a day, the facility demanded much of Fr. Charbonneau's time - and he still had the responsibilities of his parish to take care of.

"The Ryans really ran it because I was so busy. We named two of Brentwood's buildings after them: The Jim Ryan Pavillion, and the Kay Ryan Women's Centre, in honour of all they did for us."

In 1964, a government task force determined that places like Windsor - where there was a high incidence of drinking-related crimes - should have a recovery home. In 1974, Brentwood opened in west Windsor on the waterfront.

"Father Ken Jaggs asked if I would run a recovery home and I agreed. I had no money but I've done a lot of things on faith and I figured that if God wants something to happen, he won't let anything interfere."

His offer to buy the building with a $5,000 deposit was laughed at; it has a $150,000 asking price.

But funds to buy the Sandwich Street home that would become Brentwood came from the perfectly timed intervention of a friend in Ottawa who knew of a group that allocated funds to just such community organizations.

"It was just meant to be," says Charbonneau.

As the program grew, he rented St. Hubert's School in South Windsor to hold meetings, busing his members from the Sandwich home.

Over time, the priest developed more than 100 talks that he would give at Brentwood meetings. His brother, also a priest, began to document them. It was the beginning of the program's core communications. Brentwood drew greater respect and really took off in the 1980s. Once again, demand placed too much pressure on the facility and another move was needed.

"The Elmwood Casino became available. It had been closed for years and was in great disrepair. The windows were smashed, all the electrical stripped. It was a mess," recalls Charbonneau.

Its owner gave Brentwood the deed with the provision it did not have to pay for two years, which enabled the board of directors to secure $1.5 million to conduct the repairs which took one year. It could accommodate 150 to 175 people at any one time and began to draw people from across Canada.

"When it opened, it drew so many people. We had the 90-day program. Chrysler, Ford and GM would send us employees who needed help. We also got people from word-of-mouth. We received a lot of good publicity."

Fr. Charbonneau was finally given permission to work there full-time, and he has devoted himself fully ever since.

"I'm getting ready for retirement now. It hasn't always been smooth; but I never let opposition stop me. I never shied away from a physical or verbal confrontation. I had a reputation that stood me in good stead."

The Windsor Star

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