St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church and the Radio Priest, the poet in the pulpit

It is Dec. 23. I cross the border on a cold Friday morning. The U.S. Customs are all smiles. Merry Christmas. Best of the Season. The city is waking up as I make my way to Grand Boulevard, past the Fisher Theatre. I’m heading in the direction of St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church at West Grand Blvd. and Rosa Parks. Abandoned. It was built in 1920. On my way there, I pulled over to the side of the road, and a crack addict, a woman of maybe 30, knocked on my window. Scared the hell out of me. I locked the doors. She backed off and stood on the curb and asked me to roll down the window. I opened it a crack and asked what she wanted.

“Can you spare a dollar?” I dug into my pocket and found a dollar for her, and slipped it through the window. She thanked me, and moved on down the street. I continued on my way to the church, and made my way down a broken sidewalk, the entrance covered in overgrown shrubbery. The doors at the back of the church were wide open, and I walked into this massive cathedral, its walls tangled over by graffiti, massive stained-glass windows shattered, and haunting skeletal trees outside shifting with the wind. The place was cold to the bone, and I went about my business of photographing this amazing place.

In the late 1980s, the Archdiocese of Detroit was realigning urban parishes and this one merged with another and was renamed Martrys of Uganda. I am not sure when it closed. But part of its history is that the radio priest Father Charles Coughlin got his start here. He was assigned as an assistant when he was teaching at Assumption College in Windsor. He would cross the border every week to deliver a sermon at this church. St. Agnes was newly built, as a matter of fact, it was only a year old when he started going there. Coughlin had been a priest since 1916, having been ordained at St. Basil’s in Toronto. His first assignment was teaching English at Assumption. It was Bishop Gallagher of Detroit who had heard of Coughlin’s preaching prowess. It was at St. Agnes that he developed that connection with people, and later he would move to St. Leo’s where he stayed for 18 months. Finally five years later he would wind up at Royal Oak, Michigan, 12 miles north of Detroit. By then, Coughlin was 35, and it was there in Royal Oak that he found his gift in radio. But it was at St. Agnes that this fiery priest got a taste for the pulpit and nurtured the eloquence needed to capture the imagination of his followers.

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Fred Wah, Parliamentary Poet Laureate

It was good to see Saskatchewan-born writer Fred Wah being appointed as the new parliamentary poet laureate. Wah is the fifth poet to hold that office. The first was George Bowering, whose roots, like Wah’s, are in the tradition of the American Black Mountain poets. Wah, former president of the Writers Union of Canada, won the Governor General’s Award in 1986 and teaches at the Banff Centre for the Arts. Senate Speaker Noel Kinsella in making the announcement said, “As a distinguished poet, editor, and teacher Fred Wah is known across Canada for his interest in a range of subjects. Mr. Wah brings forth a collaborative approach and unique perspective to his work inspiring younger poets, students and others both nationally and internationally with his reflections on Canadian culture.”

Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer described Wah’s writing as being grounded in the country’s political and social landscapes. Wah said his work as a parliamentary poet laureate will involve an engagement of poetry as it “represents our homes and migrations, our questions of history and identity.”

I shot this photograph of the poet at the Pause Cafe in Windsor Ontario when Fred Wah was here to talk about his writing.

Check out the Globe and Mail article:


I just returned from seeing the movie My Week With Marilyn, a film set in the summer of 1956 in England when an aspiring filmmaker Colin Clark worked on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, a film that brought the famous Sir Laurence Olivier together with Marilyn Monroe. Such a lovely film, and I had forgotten all about the interview I had done with Arthur Miller in 1987 when he was promoting his memoir Timebends. I interviewed him in Toronto, and was told not to mention Marilyn’s name in the interview. Of course, I couldn’t see how he could avoid talking about her, and he did speak about his relationship, and his marriage to Marilyn. You could tell that while he had been tortured by her, he had a great love for this woman. He respected her. And defended her. At one point, he said she may never have read any more than a handful of books in her lifetime, but she had this uncanny ability to size up a book in just a couple of pages, and could tell you how it was going to end, how it was going to spin out to its conclusion. She also distrusted anything fictional, preferring only the truth. Miller once told her she was the “saddest girl” he had ever met. At first, Marilyn was hurt by this remark, but suddenly realized it was loaded with tenderness and affection. She responded by saying no one had ever said that about her. She told Miller that she believed men only ever wanted “happy girls.” That wasn’t her. She was real.

One night, Marilyn told Miller a story that silenced him in the most tender way. The story emerged when Miller and Marilyn were casually standing together looking out over the city of New York, and apropos of nothing, she started speaking about her elderly Aunt Ana, a Christian Scientist who had been her guardian. She told Miller about how one day, her aunt suddenly took ill and died. Marilyn was in terrible shock over her aunt’s death. So much so that the next night, Marilyn made her way upstairs to her aunt’s bedroom, and climbed into her bed, and slept there. The next day, she went to the cemetery, and when she spotted some men digging Aunt Ana’s grave, and saw ladder running into it, she asked the gravediggers if she could climb down. They graciously moved aside, and Marilyn slowly made her way down to the bottom, and stretched out on the loamy earth and gazed up at the sky, with the men standing at the rim of the gravesite. She could see them leaning on their shovels and smoking, and she lay there a few moments, and felt the cold against her back. It was when the men started joking that she roused herself, and got up and climbed back out of the hole. That story has stayed with me. It was a young Marilyn, not yet the actress, not yet the sex symbol. Just a young girl saddened by her aunt’s death.

Arthur Miller wrote: “To have survived, she would have had to be either more cynical or even further from reality than she was. Instead, she was a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.”

Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller

First Public Event: Catholic Central High School, Windsor, Ontario

Today was really my first official “public” appearance as Poet Laureate. I went to Catholic Central and spoke to a couple of classes, mostly history classes. This was organized by Ellie Csepregi, an amazing English teacher, but also a gifted poet and tremendous supporter of the arts in Windsor. Chad Barrette and Taunia Piknjac Phillips, two history teachers from the school, were also there. Both Chad and Ellie were dressed in costumes reflective of the time. A gangster and flapper. Ellie also brought one of her classes to this event where I showed a Keynote presentation on The Rumrunners, my most popular book. The photos in this presentation are from the Roaring Twenties, the period of Prohibition in Canada and the U.S. There are photos of old jalopies laden with whiskey and being driven across the ice to Detroit. There are pictures of women stuffing bottles of booze in their garters, of men in blind pigs and speakeasies, of authorities rolling barrels of alcohol into the streets and dumping them into sewers, of gangsters, of torpedoes filled with booze and being shot to secret terminals on the Michigan side … These are all in my book, and they are part of a presentation that I have been doing for a number of years. I spoke to the students about that little piece of history and how it impacts our part of Canada. Someone asked me how long it took to write. I explained that I first wrote a play about that period, and then went on to write The Rumrunners. It took me about a year. I revised it all a few years ago for Biblioasis. The book hit the market again in 2009 and was an instant bestseller all over again. When it was first released in 1980, it sold more than 25,000 copies.

The classes that turned up in the auditorium at Catholic Central were amazing with their questions. They wanted to know about the torpedoes. They wanted to know about Al Capone and The Purple Gang. They wanted me to tell them how I went about writing the book. This last one is an interesting question because I never considered myself an historian, though I loved history when I was studying it in high school, and later at university. My greatest love is poetry, but in the narrative form.  I am drawn to history at its best when the storytelling is so compelling. I luxuriate in tales of ordinary people, as well as those accounts of the famous in ordinary, everyday situations. I am fascinated by the sense of “place” and its importance to the decisions and behaviour of people. And when all of this comes together, that’s when the writing gets done.

Brides in Black and Day Moon Rising

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I have been working with a crop of new students at the University of Windsor in the English Department’s unique editing program where we edit manuscripts to be published by Black Moss Press. The program is really an internship with the press. This year, we have been working with two titles: one by Mary Ann Mulhern, the other by Terry Ann Carter. The first is called Brides in Black and focuses upon the stories of women who have remained in the convent, or left the monastic life. Their stories emerged from interviews that Mary Ann had done. She, herself, was a nun with the Sisters of St. Joseph. She was also a teacher. The other book, Day Moon Rising, is about Cambodia, and Terry Ann’s experiences of working in that country where she joined a humanitarian crew building homes. Her work  reflects both the beauty and the horror of the country.

At Elias Deli, my favourite morning haunt, our class met for breakfast, and we read some of the poems in these two books, and celebrated the moment of our completion of the editing. Mary Ann joined us for breakfast and read from the manuscript. Three students — Jessica Knapp, Victoria Faraci and Emily Abbott — also read selections. What a great way to begin a rainy Monday morning in Windsor. Breakfast was fabulous. This place has been host to other poetry readings and to celebrities world wide.

A word to the editors in my class: “Master editors are artists themselves. They need to be…” From Noah Lukeman.

That Time Between …

Sam Abell, an Ohio-born photographer who worked for National Geographic, speaks about photography flowing from values, but also says values flow from childhood. He also suggests style flows from childhood, too, and somehow pervades everything we do, or how we look at the world. For that matter, it also affects how we speak to the world. How we reflect that to the world.

Another thing that Abell mentions is that he never finds it difficult making photographs. His biggest challenge is “that time between photographs.” Abell says it is difficult “not knowing when or how another image would reveal itself.” The same applies to poetry, or writing. Hemingway feared the same thing when it came to writing fiction. He always left a little in the tank when he quit for the day, so that he could go back the next morning and continue from where he left off.

I love this photograph, a writer on the move. Enjoy.


Here is one for  Windsor. You step outside in the dark of the morning, and you know they are out there ….


I roll out of bed

to see them cavorting

on my front lawn

at not quite 5 a.m.

a mother skunk

and four furry tailed

little ones

frolicking in moonlight

I regard them

the way some might judge

squatters, or worse,


I fear them

I can’t say anything

I feel trapped

in my own house

not wanting to risk

making my early morning

run to Tim Hortons

yet I wish to warn these creatures

what might befall them

if they dare burrow

under my pool

Last summer

their hillbilly cousins

moved in

I hired a wildlife service

to trap them humanely

then fed a hose

down their tunnels

blocking up escape routes

with cement blocks

hoping to roust them

from their home

but they never got the point —

they defied my every move

till I stuffed

their underground grid

with chlorine-loaded pool pucks

and sealed up the exits

So now I want to tell

these happy little creatures

mind your own business

leave me alone

let me go to my car…

pretty please

Lee Plaza Honeymoon









JOHN B. LEE is one of Canada’s most prolific poets. He sent me this piece by e-mail the other day after I told him I had been at the Lee Plaza Hotel a week ago. This once beautiful, art-deco building is abandoned now. The windows are all gone. Before dawn Sunday morning, I wandered through it, and stepped into the rooms. I found the remains of a piano in the ballroom. I found an entire closet full of clothes in another room. I found women’s hats, an umbrella, broken lamps and a jar of honey. I was with Windsor, Ontario photographer Jessica Bracken who spotted this white dress near a closet. I photographed it from the side. What follows below is John’s story of that hotel when his mother and father went there on their honeymoon.


My mom and dad were married in a home wedding on an uncommonly warm winter Sunday, January 9, 1949. After the ceremony in my mother’s homestead they went outside to be photographed in shirtsleeves on the lawn of the small hardscrabble farm a mile from Mull crossing. They set out from there in the dying hours of the day for the motor city where they stayed at the Lee Plaza hotel located in the shadow of the Olympia. That evening, my father and his new bride watched a game between the Leafs and the Wings from the standing-room only section of the arena. The game ended in a 2-2 tie, and Mother always remembered the pain in her feet standing on the hard and unforgiving floor in brand new high-heeled shoes. That was the first hockey game I attended, though my ovum waited in the warm darkness for nearly two years, a lonesome egg was I. Somewhere else, the team I would come to love, the Chicago Black Hawks, were waiting for me to be born a fan, though the first uniform I wore when I played my first game at 6 years of age would be that of a New York Rangers. Jar rings holding my shin pads and socks in place, I stumbled onto the ice like Andy Bathgate’s wobbly kneed newborn calf, I would have preferred a Black Hawks logo, but then, my father wasn’t one to ask me what I wanted. It seems my Mother was his willing partner even then. She hated hockey. She loved the man who took her to that game and made her suffer to be his companion in life, though now a widow, she still says of him, “he was the best man I ever knew. He gave me a good life. I miss him so.” I think of her there, her beauty often compared to that of Grace Kelly, so much did she resemble the lovely movie star, my aunt Emily bought her a Grace Kelly dinner plate that she placed on the dining room buffet. Still a great beauty at 87 years of age, my Mother laments those toe pinching high heeled shoes, the ones she wore the first night of her honey moon with George Emerick Lee on her arm as she headed for the Lee Plaza and the room where they would make love for the first time.

The Appointment

So, my term as Poet Laureate for the City of Windsor starts now. I met with Cathy Masterson at my “writing office,” which is located at Ypres and Walker Road (next to the Beer Store). It is Tim Hortons. Centre table. I’m there most mornings about 5:30. Tea and a bagel. You will see me tapping away at my laptop. Or reading. Wearing effectively what one might call pyjamas. Actually jogging pants and a hoodie. It is there that I write. After working for newspapers for some 40 years, I can’t stay home in the quiet that exists there. I need the clamour, the workplace, even though at this point in the day, it is quiet. Occasionally I spy someone in a corner sleeping at a table, their mug of coffee empty. It’s cold outside — I don’t blame them. The staff isn’t concerned. So, it is there at Tim Hortons that I met Cathy, but not at 5:30 a.m. We met in the afternoon. We talked about the position, and the plans for this two-year appointment. At this point, I’ve got high hopes, and the biggest one is trying to lure all the poets laureate from across the country to come to Windsor for a first ever literary reading of that kind. I am hoping for the spring, but that may be too soon. Perhaps BookFest? I will speak to Lenore and Martin about this.

I have to commend Ms. Masterson’s perspective on this. She is new to this job as cultural affairs manager for the City of Windsor. She arrived, and embraced Coun. Joanne Gignac’s push to start this poet laureate program in Windsor. Of course, I must also thank Joanne for dreaming up this program. It is a positive gesture in support of just how much the arts matter in this city.

I have received such wonderful response to this appointment. Hundreds of mentions on Facebook, email and twitter, and one special one from my son, Stephane, a hockey player in France who wrote this blog. Check it out:

Coun. Percy Hatfield had this to say about the appointment: “Marty Gervais is an outstanding choice for Windsor’s first Poet Laureate. While we will all have a learning curve to go through as to how best to promote the position and raise the Poet Laureate’s profile within the greater Windsor community, Marty already has a public profile from his many years of writing for the Windsor Star and his many years as a local poet, author, associate professor and publisher, so our job of promoting the position will not be all that difficult. I have known Marty since the mid-seventies and have always admired his work as a reporter as well as his love of this area’s rich history and heritage which he weaves so well into his story telling. I look forward to the many adventures he will lead us on in this new role and to the wonderful experiences which lay ahead as he prepares to bring to town, other writers, poets, and Poet Laureates to help him celebrate the role and responsibilities his new position . I don’t know the names of the other people who may have been nominated, but in my mind, the committee made the right choice and I applaud their decision and know Windsor’s arts and cultural community will welcome Marty with open arms as will our young students who are in for a treat when the Poet Laureate comes to school to introduce them to a new world of learning and creativity and an introduction to literature than only Marty can bring. We are all in for a treat and Marty’s new role is yet more proof that Windsor is a place where arts and culture, once struggling, is again beginning to thrive.”

Dr. Katherine Quinsey, department head of the English Dept. at the University of Windsor, made this comment: “If you’ve read the Windsor Star this morning, you will know that our own Marty Gervais has just been named Windsor’s first Poet Laureate. (The role of City Poet goes back a few centuries, so as an eighteenth-century scholar I have a special feeling about this!) As Poet Laureate of Windsor Marty will be the person to bring the voice and experience of our community to the wider world. This is something he’s already been doing for a long time. Not only as a poet but also as an eminent Canadian publisher, editor, journalist, teacher, photographer, and memoir-writer, Marty has contributed more to Canadian writing from and in our own corner of Canada than anyone I can think of. Here in the English Department we have been truly blessed in having Marty as our Resident Writing Professional; he has inspired generations of students of all kinds with his passion and skill for and with the written words and images that map and create our experience, reaching out from the classroom into the marketplace and community. I can think of no one better suited for this position!! Way to go, Marty! “

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