Tom McKillop: Order of Jesus

Previous writing from Catolic New Times will be posted on weekends.

Tom McKillop: Order of Canada, ‘father’ of families, friend of Jesus
By Ted Schmidt

One day in the summer of 1960, I came down to the old ramshackle club which stood at 121 Bellwoods Avenue in Toronto’s Little Italy. I was there to ask for advice from my baseball coach Carmen Bush, already an inner city legend. As I walked in I noticed the simply framed motto of the club, “The Other Guy.” Underneath was a picture of a man autographed with a note of thanks to Carmen. I asked him who he was. He told me his name was Tom McKillop and that he was the living embodiment of the club’s motto.

Later we drove up to a west end park where McKillop was working as a playground supervisor during his summer vacation from the seminary. This was my introduction to the man known simply as “Tommy” or “Big T.”

Forty five years later I found myself among the hundreds who flocked into Holy Name Catholic Church in Toronto’s east end recently to hug and say thanks to a man who had such a profound impact on the youth of Toronto and who had just been invested with the Order of Canada.

Over the years “Big T” and I would meet with our common mentor and when he died at age 89, we eulogized our former baseball coach, one of the first men inducted into the Canadian baseball Hall of Fame. We were in many ways still a couple of baseball-mad downtown teenagers who knew that this son of illiterate Italian immigrants had taught us valuable lessons which transcended the ball field. Big T had described Carmen as “the voice with the message.”

As tribute after tribute flowed from the stage in the Holy Name Church basement, I insisted that we not be too quick to canonize McKillop; that like all of us, he had feet of clay as well as being one of the slowest runners on Bush’s teams in the 1940s. Carmen had often related the story to me, each time chuckling as he retold it. It seems that in the Juvenile city final in 1947, Tommy was up to bat in the bottom of the ninth, when umpire Joe Murphy called him out on a third strike. Ever the intense competitor, Tommy turned around and bellowed, “You son of a bitch.” It was so shocking — so unexpected — that it was if time had stood still. Nobody could believe it. Tom’s dad, Tom senior, sitting behind the plate, soon let his son have it. Murphy and Bush were in shock. It was the last time anybody heard McKillop swear.

A passion for sports

Tom McKillop was born in 1928 of working class parents in Toronto’s west end. Like all depression era kids he channeled much of his youthful energy into sports, and in particular baseball. He was so nuts about the summer pastime that to the chagrin of his parents, he took off before his final exams at university to try his hand at professional baseball. Tommy was one of the many who “had a cup of coffee” with the ‘pros.’ He lasted but three weeks with a Philadelphia Phillies farm team.

Back to Toronto, his ‘pro’ dreams dashed, he wrote his university exams and embarked on a teaching career that included a heavy dose of athletics. Slowly the idea of priesthood emerged and impressed by the Paulist Fathers of St. Peter’s parish, Tommy entered the novitiate in New Jersey, then on to Washington for more study. Considered a little too intense and with a small speech impediment, he was cut again. Not easily dissuaded, McKillop entered Toronto’s St. Augustine’s seminary and was ordained at the mature age of 36 in 1964.

Assigned to St. Mark’s parish and veteran pastor Gerry Cochran, the energetic McKillop immersed himself in parish work which naturally included youth ministry. With his sports background, he was then drafted by Archbishop Philip Pocock to head up the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO). “Big T” was ready, mature through his life experience and fired by the vision of Vatican II to take youth ministry in another direction. His long experience in sports convinced McKillop that young people were hardwired for a much deeper immersion in life. He had grown past the rink and the diamond. Youth Corps (YC) was born in 1966. Its founding vision was based on the communal vision of Jesus in Luke 9 and 10. “Then Jesus called the twelve together … and he sent them out to proclaim the reign of God … After this the Lord appointed seventy others …”

The original team, comprised of three men and three women moved into the community to serve, at first in hostels and poor parishes, then in prison visitations, poverty issues, Latin American solidarity and peace work. McKillop, radically centred in Jesus, listened deeply to the inchoate passions of his younger cohorts. Together, the YC team learned to discern the evolving signs of the times.

Big T’s impact

Joe Mihevc, (YC 1979-83) now a dynamic Toronto city councilor commented on the team approach. “Tom could flow with the agenda and take everything in stride. He recognized the passionate energy of all of us and was always open to supporting good ideas other than his own. Tom inspired a kind of Canadian liberation theology and the host of young people who were touched by Youth Corps. And then there were those 85 weekends over 20 years, when Christian families were strengthened in Sharon, Ont — absolutely amazing.” Ellie Kaas who later worked with Tom as an associate at Holy Name said, “Tom is a visionary. He sees young people with their gifts of energy and passion creating small communities of justice and compassion in the church.”

Sil Silvaterra (YC 1977-79), now who works in the Legal Aid Programme at Osgoode Hall said, ”“Big T” was bent on shaping young people in Cardinal Cardin’s model of see, judge and act. He used the yearly “Events” to energize and train young Catholics, to organize evenings with Dorothy Day, Viktor Frankl, Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen, Mother Theresa, John Howard Griffin and many others. Years later, I came across management consultants who charged outrageous fees for the very organizing methods Tommy taught gratis with grace. In many ways he was a prophet, helping to found Christian family weekends and even CNT. And like most prophets, he was barely acknowledged by the local hierarchy.”

Bob Carty, (YC, 1969-72), the award-winning documentary maker on CBC’s Sunday Edition, reflected on YC’s goals. “Youth Corps’ goal was never to change a generation but to work with smaller groups in depth. The benefits inevitably showed up in 10 or 20 years, where those people were in society.
Rosana Pellizzari (YC, 1978-80) now Medical Officer of Health at the Perth District Health Unit said, “Tom simply walked the walk when it came to witness, activism, spirituality and leadership. He taught me everything I know about teamwork and steadfastness.”

Perhaps the greatest accolade for McKillop’s creation was that of the reigning expert on youth ministry in North America, professor Michael Warren (St. John’s, NYC). “I have examined youth ministry in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Canada. It exemplifies the thought of Vatican II. I know of no youth efforts as theoretically sound as Youth Corps.”

The late bishop Tom Fulton, a former auxiliary in Toronto was a great supporter of YC, wrote “Big T” after World Youth Day that “your founding of YC was rooted in the vision of Vatican II. It was Christocentic and designed for community building. It remains valid to this day. It is the answer to the question, ‘Where do we go from here?’”

McKillop left YC in 1984 to take up pastorates in east Toronto and Newmarket. Youth Corps soldiered on for a few years, but fell out of favour with the current archbishop who closed it down in the early 1990s. Youth ministry in Toronto has never recovered from its regrettable demise. Nonetheless, the serene McKillop (retired since 1997) carries on counseling and helping in quieter ways — always the companion in the order of Jesus. Catholic New Times Jan 15,2006
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