Sr. Sue Moran, co-founder of Out of the Cold, died unexpectedly and peacefully while talking with her brother on the phone a week before Christmas. She was 78 years old.
The program began in 1987 when Sr. Moran helped organize students at St. Michael’s College School, the Basilian-run, private boys high school.
At first, it was just a Saturday afternoon drop-in program in a storefront owned by the Anglican St. Michael and All Angels parish. By the early 1990s, Out of the Cold expanded into overnight stays at churches of various denominations and Holy Blossom Temple, one of Toronto’s oldest synagogues.
The faith response to Toronto’s growing homeless population quickly became Sr. Moran’s over-riding passion and mission. The unlikely story of how Sr. Sue’s students and friends created a city-wide movement to save homeless Torontonians from freezing to death on the streets is told in the Catholic Register’s 2015 book Out of the Cold: A History of Caring.
“That was very much her mission and she committed her whole life to that,” said Sr. Frances Brady of Our Lady’s Missionaries.
Sr. Moran had entered Our Lady’s Missionaries in 1963 with the clear intention of becoming a missionary in some distant part of the world. But fragile health dogged her through the years and made taking up life with the poor of some distant village too risky. Instead, Sr. Moran remained in Toronto teaching elementary school.
By 1985 she became the assistant chaplain at St. Michael’s, where the relatively new phenomenon of homelessness became something she and her teenaged students could not avoid. In 1986, a homeless man the students knew as George died near the school. George had regularly dropped by the school where students and cafeteria staff passed him trays of food. When his body was found outside the school fence, beaten to death, it shocked the students.
School chaplain Fr. John Murphy and Sr. Moran began speaking with students about how they could respond to the homeless of their city. With the offer of a storefront from Anglican Fr. John Erb, the students began serving up stew to as many homeless people as they could find and persuade to visit the St. Clair Avenue address.
From the opening of the first drop-in, Sr. Moran had a new focus and purpose in her life.
“She certainly made it more visible to us how much mission is here as well as in other countries we went to,” said Brady. “She certainly kept that in front of us and everybody in Toronto, really.”
Denied the opportunity to travel the globe seeking mission territory, the mission came to Sr. Moran on the streets of her home town.
“What she did here probably was just as hard and just as challenging as what we did,” Brady said.
Today, with 16 official locations in Toronto and 10 more in York Region, Out of the Cold serves more than 12,000 people per year. Sr. Moran got all kinds of faith communities involved, overcoming their qualms about insurance, hygiene and crime.
“I used to call her ‘the little old lady with a machine gun,’ ” said author, journalist and St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Out of the Cold founder Stevie Cameron. “There was no nonsense about her.”
When Out of the Cold came to St. Andrew’s, church elders resisted the idea and set strict limits on what services would be offered — no food, only coffee and a bed. Sr. Moran showed up the opening night, saw that the guests were going to bed without dinner and phoned in an order of pizza paid for out of her own purse.
“We Presbyterians stood watching — mortified and very upset,” Cameron said in an email. “We decided at that moment we would defy the powers that be and that we would feed our sheep.”
Cardinal Thomas Collins called Sr. Moran’s dedication to the homeless “inspiring.”
“Her efforts engaged faith communities throughout the Greater Toronto Area, reminding us of our call to provide not only shelter but also dignity, compassion and love to the homeless,” he said.
Toronto Mayor John Tory described Sr. Moran as the “heart and soul” of Out of the Cold.
“The program is a great Toronto story,” he said. “It is in synagogues, it is in Catholic churches, it is in non-denominational community institutions. She has left the city a lasting legacy that is deeply appreciated.”
An unofficial tally of the homeless who have died in Toronto over the last 30 years is kept just outside Holy Trinity Anglican Church, tucked behind the Eaton Centre. It now tops 800. As Out of the Cold welcomes the homeless for its 30th winter, the City of Toronto finally began keeping an official count of the homeless dead starting Jan. 1.