In the early 1970’s, several adherents of The Central United Church became concerned about the number of people in need of help and a place to gather, share and break bread. Acting on that concern, the group determined that there must be a way to help and that some course of action was necessary. Together, they held informal discussions and directed their energies into doing something with their limited available resources. Those efforts resulted in the birth of a drop-in centre called The Open Door Lounge.
The centre operated out of The Central United Church building at 628 Oullette Avenue during the early years and was organized and rostered solely by volunteers. The facilities comprised a lounge area with seven small tables capable of seating 28 people. The opening hours were 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. with hot lunches served between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. from November to April. Coffee and donuts, when available, were served during opening hours year-round.
Meals and coffee, even in those days, were provided at no charge, but there was the opportunity for people who came to The Open Door Lounge to give a free-will offering. Very often, recipients were able to afford no more than a token payment and willingly offered to do chores or errands instead; several assisted the volunteers, who came from the various churches in the city, with serving coffee or the noontime meal.
As its reputation grew, it became apparent that an Auxiliary was needed to oversee the functioning of the organization, known by then as The Downtown Mission. That need was met on July 4, 1975 when the first meeting of an executive committee of The Downtown Mission was held. Members in attendance at the first meeting were Paul Fair, Victor Babilo, Lucy Kroeker, Jean Lennon, Agnes Hillis, Margaret Walsh, Georgina Woltz, Amy McKernan and Janice Banigan.
The Downtown Mission eventually had to move out of The Central United Church compounds when The Concourse Building was constructed. Between the years 1980 and 1986, the Mission moved several times to different locations in Windsor’s downtown area.Some of those relocations saw The Downtown Mission operate from places such as the back of Bennett Pies on McDougall Street, the basement of the U.A.W. Hall on Chatham Street and quarters at St. Alphonsus Church on Park Street East.
Throughout that period and with each relocation, The Mission continued growing both in numbers of people served and in services provided. As people’s needs were identified and analyzed the organization responded by developing strategies and programs to address those needs. Resultant expansions included the distribution of emergency food baskets and visitation to seniors and ‘shut-ins’ who needed some company and small chores done.
The first half of the 1980’s decade clearly indicated that The Mission was gaining a reputation as an institution for sharing and caring. Its rapid developmental growth and service expansions spelt out the desirability for a more formal organization structure…one capable of reaching out to a wider donor base to meet its projected increased needs. Essex Presbytery of The United Church of Canada formulated a proposal that would establish a board to direct the operations of The Mission. That was duly implemented and a first Board of Directors meeting was held on March 30, 1982.
Three months after the new Board held its first meeting thoughts turned towards incorporating The Mission. Long hours were spent with lawyers to develop The Letters Patent and The By-Laws of the organization. It was imperative that the policies and procedures governing the operations and future expansion possibilities be carefully considered and clearly recorded. On September 2, 1982 an application was made for letters patent and on November 15th. The Mission became an incorporated body legally registered as The United Church Downtown Mission of Windsor Inc.
Incorporation seemed to be the impetus for accelerated service growth and this, coupled with prior years multi-relocations and attendant difficulties, motivated the board to look into purchasing its own property. The desire to remain within an accessible downtown Windsor location made purchasing a rather difficult proposition. Nevertheless the idea was pursued with considerable enthusiasm and several premises were inspected. The summer of 1984 was basically spent on the real estate beat before an offer was finally made to purchase the old Volcano Restaurant on Wyandotte Street West. The Offer was unsuccessful.
Two years later the Volcano Restaurant was still on the market and so, once again, its owners were approached. Again an offer was made, conditional upon obtaining financing, and this time accepted. The funds to complete this purchase became the next major undertaking of The Board and an intensive fund-raising effort was launched. The hard work and dedication of many reflected the resolve that The Volcano Restaurant would be the home of The Downtown Mission. As a result of a highly successful fund-raising campaign, the purchase of The Volcano was completed in May 1986 and for many, what once seemed an impossible dream had become a reality. The Downtown Mission had its own home.
The next several weeks generated a flurry of activity as necessary modifications to the Volcano Restaurant took place. The task was accomplished with the untiring efforts of hard working and dedicated volunteers. Finally in the summer of 1986 The United Church Downtown Mission opened the doors of its very own building at 157 Wyandotte Street West.
The Mission’s services were offered at this location for the next 16 years, during which time the numbers of people seeking access to and using the several services available continued to grow. A major growth spurt occurred in the mid 1990’s when changes were made at the the level of the provincial government to social service assistance programs and rent control. An unprecendented 20% increase was experienced, taking the average daily lunches served from 120 to 140-150 and monthly emergency food ‘pacs’ distribution from 140 to the 160-170 range.
Throughout the decade of the nineties, The Mission continued to be dynamic in responding to the needs of the various population groups utilizing its services. New programs were introduced and existing programs modified to address changing needs and provide increased levels of user satisfaction. As the 1990’s drew to a close The Mission was offering its client base some 20 different services, many in partnership with other agencies in the social service sector. All the while the basic lunch meal and food bank programs continued in growth mode.
The millenium ended with overwhelming and tremendous growth in user services offered and accessed at The Mission. This growth, fuelled by the needs of various population groups within our community, mandated major modifications to the existing building or a move to a larger property, if we wanted to remain effective in the delivery of much needed services. Once again a central location with easy access became prime consideration as the Board of Directors explored the options.
The year 2000 saw the board develop parallel plans to address the demands for more space and conduct an appropriate cost/benefit analysis of each. Then, once again, as it did fifteen years previously, a window of opportunity opened for The Mission. The nearby Temple Baptist Church had well advanced plans to move to a new location and placed its property (3 lots down from The Mission) on the market. A flurry of meetings, offers and counter-offers ensued ending with Temple Baptist Church accepting an offer of purchase conditional upon The Mission being able to sell its own property. Energetic efforts to find a buyer bore fruit and as 2000 drew to a close, the legal framework for the sale of one building and the purchase of another was in place and The Mission was once again preparing to move.
The dawn of 2001 witnessed feverish activity as staff and clients of The Mission worked long and hard to relocate from the ‘old’ Mission to the Temple Baptist Church building. The timeframe for completion was 15 days …. January 16th. being the due date for handing over possession of the Wyandotte Street property. That task was accomplished with 3 days to spare.
Over the following 5 month period The Mission operated on reduced hours while the kitchen, dining room and washroom facilities were renovated to statutory standards and Board of Health regulations. Meals, while served from the new location, were prepared off-site at All Saints Church in City Hall Square and transported in daily. Clients and volunteers exhibited remarkable understanding and provided incredible support during this period of change and renewal. Finally, in June 2001, The Mission celebrated the grand re-opening of the new location at 664 Victoria Avenue.
The current facilities provide a number of services that were not offered at any of The Mission’s former locations. Rooms are available for visiting agencies, new programs have been implemented in partnership with other social service organizations, new relationships have been developed and the sanctuary has been modified for use as a church as well as a theatre. The ability to grasp opportunities to reach out and help others, either on our own or in collaboration with other groups, has become easier.
The Downtown Mission continues to pro-actively pursue approaches for the development and implementation of programs and services based on the ascertained needs of its clientele and other needy population groups in the community. That we have been able to grow and meet those needs since our beginning in 1972 speak to the remarkable kindness and generosity of so many in Windsor and Essex County. Their strong, continuing support and encouragement provide the foundation on which we have been able to build and for that The Downtown Mission extends sincerest appreciation and gratitude.