Dr. Anthony Walsh:  The Gentle Revolutionary

by Jean Webber

Editor's Note: The letters and newspaper clippings used in preparing this biography may be found at the Osoyoos Museum.


On the evening of March 24, 1976, about thirty-five people gathered in the Okanagan College classroom at Oliver to welcome an old friend, Dr. Anthony Walsh, who had returned briefly to the Valley. For the most part, those present were residents of Inkameep, Oliver, Osoyoos, and Okanagan Falls who had known Dr. Walsh during the decade 1932-1942 while he was teacher at the Inkameep Indian School. The evening was warm with a sense of reunion.

Anthony Walsh (centre) with Jane Stelkia and Francis Baptiste.

Photo from the Oliver Chronicle.

On June 8 of the previous year, Concordia University, at its Loyola Campus, had conferred upon Mr. Walsh an honorary doctorate for his work in establishing Benedict Labre House in Montreal, a home and refuge dedicated to meeting the needs of destitute men. In presenting the doctoral candidate on that occasion, Professor John Buell had said in part:

Mr. Chancellor:

I have the honour to present to you Mr. Anthony Walsh. He is best described, in the formal terms of this occasion, and in a quite literal sense, as a philanthropist; one who acted out of love and concern for his fellow human beings.

His philosophy was basic and total: quite simply, he gave himself.

In the early 1950's ... with the assistance of a small group of friends, he decided to give all his time and all his efforts to the poor in our society.  He did it by binding himself to total and voluntary poverty, which meant that he would own nothing and seek to own nothing ... he would awaken the Christian community, awaken it to the very Gospel it professed and by which he actually lived.

And the house he ran, with the help of those friends, and others as the place became better known, was constantly filled with the broken and criminal, the mentally ill, the hungry, the castoffs of our society ... and over the years, twenty years, thousands of people came to work, to give, to help - and they do so today.

Along with this went his intellectual work:  the peaceful introduction of new ideas, the reassessment of spiritual values, the expression of new modes of religious enterprise. Long before it was fashionable to do so, Labre House was a centre for ecumenical exchange, for dialogue between races, for understanding between cultures.

The man who started all this, Tony Walsh, as he is called by all who know him, lived the paradoxes of the Gospel. Instead of affluence he chose poverty; instead of conflict, peace; instead of publicity and self-seeking, he chose anonymity; and in an age of fashionable hedonism, he chose personal celibacy. (1)

Nothing was said in the presentation speech about Mr. Walsh's teaching in the Okanagan or about his work with the Legion War Services on Vancouver Island. Yet both the Inkameep years and the war years were a prelude to the Benedict Labre work. When asked what led Anthony into his lay apostolate work among the poor in Montreal, Mrs. Dorothea Allison of Kelowna, a longtime acquaintance, answered:

I think it really began with his great interest from Okanagan days with the Indians. He realized what outcasts of society they were. And he realized the misery of poverty and of having no recourse to the upper crust, as it were, of the world ... When he went to Montreal ... he went into the culture of Indians living nearby, learned about their dances, their old stories, their legends. He did quite a little in getting the children together to do their Indian dances ... but that petered out because it didn't lead him anywhere, to anything more ... What remained was his tremendous feeling of sympathy for the Indians, their lack of being given a part in society; and that led him to his greater devotion to outcasts and people who had a bad time either through their own fault or that of society.

The Oliver Chronicle reporting Dr. Walsh's talk to his friends at the March 24 gathering states:

"The Inkameep years were probably the most important of my life," Mr. Walsh said. There he found solitude which afforded the opportunity for reflection. "Nothing good is accomplished without reflection," he said. Also, at Inkameep, he learned to listen, and as he listened he saw the children learn to trust him in spite of his being a white man. (2)

Fortunately, the Inkameep years are well documented in the thirty-eighth Report of the Okanagan Historical Society in an article written by Anthony Walsh. The author tells how he first took up teaching at the request of Fr. Carlyle of Bear Creek and then set about acquiring teacher's training in a somewhat informal manner. Mr. Rudolph P. Guidi, Principal of the Oliver Elementary School for many years, recalls the frequent visits of Anthony Walsh to discuss teaching techniques with the four teachers at his school. On one occasion Mr. Walsh casually remarked that the Oliver teachers and pupils should visit his school. The grade four class accepted the invitation and had such an interesting time that other visits soon followed.

Teacher's training was not the only undertaking of the young teacher. He set about studying and encouraging others to acquire information about the Interior Salish Indians among whom he had come to live and work. Characteristically, instead of seeking a degree, he pursued his research wherever he found relevant material - at museums and universities in Victoria, Seattle, Berkeley, New York, Ottawa and Santa Fe. H. J. Parham, in his A Nature Lover in British Columbia, speaks of borrowing from Mr. Walsh a Smithsonian Institute publication by James A. Teit entitled The Salishan Tribes of the Western Plateaus. Mr. Parham also records the meaning of a number of Indian place names translated by Chief George Baptiste and passed on through Anthony Walsh and he writes of the Salish sweat-house as described by Mr. Walsh. One of the activities of the Society for the Revival of Indian Arts and Crafts, established by Mr. Walsh in co-operation with Mr. and Mrs. Albert Millar, was to have members prepare and present papers based on original research regarding the Indians of the Okanagan.

The Okanagan Historical Society article deals largely with the art work of the Inkameep children, work which led to their prize-winning exhibits in the Royal Drawing Society's Exhibit for Commonwealth Children. Mrs. Allison was able to facilitate the participation of the Inkameep pupils in this international exhibition through her uncle, Adrian Stokes R.A., and his friend Alfred Munnings R.A., the latter being a celebrated painter of animals. Armed with public acknowledgement of the quality of his pupils' work, Mr. Walsh said that he would use the art to draw out the children. However, as the school teacher was required to teach the curriculum laid down by the Department of Indian Affairs which made little allowance for excursions into the arts, most of the work was accomplished in the extra hour both teacher and pupils voluntarily added to the school day.

In the arts Anthony Walsh had a new area of study to master in order to better help his charges. He took courses in the crafts. Several summers were devoted to studying creative drama with Professor Koch at the Banff School of Fine Arts. There, Mr. Walsh presented the first of many one-man shows based on the legends and dances that the Inkameep children were beginning to learn from their elders or from their own observation of nature. The one-man shows became a means of financing and publicizing the touring of the children themselves and were presented in Victoria, Montreal, Toronto, Loyola College, Chicago University, the Laboratory of Anthropology at Santa Fe, Pennsylvania State College, Barnard College at Columbia University, and in numerous small towns.

Anthony Walsh, many years instructor in an Indian school in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, is an ardent advocate of allowing Indians to develop their own cultural expression instead of assimilating them to ours. Here he is performing a B.C. Indian Folk drama with the richly expressive native gestures and actions.

Karsh Photo, from Saturday Night.

There was nothing exclusive in Anthony Walsh's concept of the arts. Indian arts and crafts, as well as music and drama, derived their character and colour from the person practising them. Non-Indians, with experiences and traditions, too, were encouraged to develop their talents in painting, basing their work on their particular traditions. Mr. Walsh always spoke of Canadian culture as "a patchwork quilt', rejecting the "melting pot" concept. Evidence of his continuing belief in the importance of popular participation in the arts is to be found in the talk he gave at a reception held in his honour at Loyola Student Centre I I June, 1975. The report in the Benedict Labre house organ, Unity, says:

Tony Walsh concluded with a wish that the many good things happening in small ways in this chaotic world be celebrated yearly in a festival of the arts. He believes that every generation should produce its own art, its own music, its own ballet, its own liturgy, communicating a sense of Joy and lovely relationships. (3)

Anthony Walsh supported the efforts of women to establish artistic enterprises, feeling, I believe, that the ability of women often went unrecognized and unused by the community. In 1944, in his foreword to Dorothea Allison's little book, Songs of Kalamalka, Mr. Walsh wrote:

We are indebted to Mrs. Allison for the gathering of these verses. If such undertakings were carried out across the whole dominion, for the encouragement of plays, songs, and music, descriptive of the people and the lives they live, it would not be long before there would be a flowering of the arts and a development of culture truly worthy of Canada.

More than thirty years later, upon hearing of Okanagan Image 1976, Mr. Walsh wrote:

How Miss Brown, Mrs. Tassie, Mrs. Allison and others would have rejoiced had they known that the seed, that was good seed, and planted in excellent soil, is now bearing fruit and being of interest and value to thousands of people throughout the Valley.

The dearth of autobiographical information in the Okanagan Historical Society article is no surprise to those who knew Anthony Walsh. He seldom spoke of himself except in relation to the work currently on hand, in which case no false modesty prevented him from recounting personal successes and thus increasing public awareness of and support for his activities. Anthony, the son of Joseph and Lucy Walsh, was born in Paris, France, in 1899, during one of his father's many trips to deliver fine Irish horses to the grandees of Europe. (The Empress Elizabeth of Austria, assassinated by an anarchist in September 1898, was one of his customers.) It was necessary that his father register the child's birth in England within the month if Anthony, as a young man, was to escape the obligation of French military service. Two other sons born to Joseph and Lucy Walsh, each named Joseph, died in infancy and were buried in Belgium. A daughter, Annie, grew up to become a Good Shepherd Sister, only to succumb to the Spanish influenza and die in 1918 at the age of 26 years. Annie was buried on Armistice Day, November 11.

Anthony Walsh appears to have grown up feeling that his father was disappointed in his gentle and somewhat delicate son, who was more interested in helpless, injured animals than in fine thoroughbreds. Fortunately for the little boy there was the companionship to be found among the goiters, housewives, and hen-wives of his homes in the Dublin area and in northern Scotland. And there was Aunt Agnes Walsh of Dublin who championed the boy before his critical parents. "Everyone should have an Aunt Agnes," said Mr. Walsh at the Oliver gathering. Aunt Agnes predicted that Anthony would become a doctor or a priest and Mr. Walsh feels that his subsequent life has partaken of some of the qualities of each of those callings.

In 1917, Anthony enlisted in the Irish Guards, served one year in France during which time he earned the Military Medal for bravery and later served in Germany with the army of occupation. He came to Canada in 1923 and worked at many jobs until engaging in fox farming at Kelowna in the late 1920's. The story of his becoming a teacher at Six-mile on the North Okanagan Reserve in 1930 and at Inkameep in 1932 is recounted in the thirty-eighth Report of the Okanagan Historical Society. In 1942, Mr. Walsh left Inkameep to join the Legion War Services, but not before a gala occasion when friends gathered to view an exhibit of his pupils' work and to enjoy the hospitality of the people of Inkameep. Mr. Guidi writes.

A highlight of the day was a sincere and moving speech by the then Chief, Baptiste George. One memorable feature of his speech was his praise of all the good work being done by Anthony Walsh. He also referred to the importance of educating the young and relating the Indian culture and folk lore to the modern education, for that was what Mr. Walsh was doing.

Postings with the Legion War Services included Port Alberni and Gordon Head. While at the former station he was introduced to George Clutesi who has since written Son of Raven, Son of Deer and Potlatch and become the recipient of an honorary doctorate. The results of this meeting cannot be more eloquently told than in George Clutesi's own words:

Tony Walsh was certainly one of the most singular and astonishing persons that I've had the good fortune to meet . . .. It was Tony who, with his vast store of patience and evident sincerity, helped me overcome a deep-rooted inferiority complex that I had unconsciously and religiously nursed as a fact of life. This was a direct result of my upbringing and brain washing during my long stay in a church school. Prior to my association with Tony, for instance, I would never allow any of my paintings or writings to be shown in public or read to another person for fear of ridicule which would surely come . . .. Apparently Tony had heard of my dabbling in the arts. He made many visits to our house before he mentioned or asked if I had any drawings or paintings I would like to show him. For quite some time I was suspicious of this man Tony whom Dr. Rosen seemed to respect very highly. Albeit, I gradually and reluctantly began bringing out paintings that I had hidden in closets and old boxes. In due course we found some twenty water colours, and before I knew it Tony had arranged for a local showing in Port Alberni in 1944. This was to be the beginning of a series of one-man shows that went across Canada and as far east as Toronto by 1945.

It was through Tony that I met and got to know Professor Dillworth who introduced me to Lawren Harris and finally to Emily Carr, who counselled me wisely. Had it not been for Tony's untiring counselling and vast store of patience I would never have broken out of the "clamshell" into which I had crawled.

The work at Gordon Head involved veterans returning from various theatres of war. The experience at Inkameep stood Mr. Walsh in good stead - he knew simple craft techniques; he could manage on a shoestring; he understood how the arts could be used to "draw out" people. In reporting on this phase of Mr. Walsh's career, the Penticton Herald states:

He used the skills he had developed in encouraging artistic expression to help veterans of the Second World War who had become psychologically handicapped by war traumas. His results with counselling and recreation, begun on a small workshop basis where he had to scratch for funds, was later studied by Americans in the same work but with huge sums of money behind them. Today, people won't go into anything unless they're funded. We lose a lot by that. Start from scratch - there's where the real creativity comes in. (5)

There are men in prestigious positions in Canada today who found their way back to health in those Gordon Head classes.

By the spring of 1946 the Legion War Services work was complete and Anthony Walsh was worn out. His doctor prescribed "a rest where he could get good meals." Anthony wrote to ask if he might accept a standing invitation to visit us at Quathiaski Cove on Quadra Island. I do not know anyone else who would look for "rest" in a four-room shanty overhanging the sea and already inhabited by two adults and three children, the oldest of whom was just four. We were delighted to have this most perfect of house guests who was considerate, unobtrusive, helpful, resourceful, independent and whose warm sense of humour gave buoyancy to matters of serious consideration. A month later when it came time for us all to leave the Cove, Anthony helped us pack and load the seiner that was to take us to Campbell River. It was then that I realized for the first time the physical frailty of this man. Yet, in spite of utter weariness, he persisted in helping.

The next few years were a time of searching, of trial and error. For some months Anthony Walsh lived in a room in the rambling old house owned by Miss Yeatman in Vernon. Anthony was most sympathetic with Miss Yeatman's desire to preserve her historic home. During this period some of Mr. Walsh's time was spent writing dramas, but little came of that for Anthony's genius was in his ability to induce others to discover and develop hidden talents rather than in being an artist himself. At this time, too, he was beginning to express an interest in the lay apostolate work being done in the slums of New York, a Christian response to the poverty and social injustice of our times. There followed a period of research in Indian matters in New Mexico and then a time of residence at Abbotsford where Mr. Walsh did writing and research into Canadian Indian affairs in connection with the revision of the Indian Act.

In 1949 Anthony Walsh left for Montreal and by 1952 Benedict Labre House was opened. Professor Buell's speech, quoted above, summarizes the sacrifice and achievement of twenty years. Days with scant donations meant thin soup for all. In the early years Anthony Walsh was often the only cook and scrubber of floors. The motivation for the work was deeply Christian, exhibiting both a desire to return dignity and self-respect to those who had been robbed on these qualities, and a conviction of the responsibility of the laity to follow the Christly life.

One of Anthony Walsh's greatest struggles in establishing Benedict Labre House was to interest and involve comfortable and economically secure people in a concern for those much less fortunate than themselves, to make indifference give way to compassion. I once asked Anthony who he felt benefited most from his work, the destitute who came in their desperation or the middle-class people who learned to serve. "Oh, the middle-class people," he replied most definitely. "The learning of compassion is a precious lesson."

In 1967, Mr. Walsh retired from Benedict Labre House to undergo a major operation which left him too weak to resume his charge. So well established was the work that the House has continued to care for the destitute. Since then, Mr. Walsh has become a "channeler", visiting universities and seminaries, counselling, lecturing, talking to small gatherings, exhorting, and encouraging. His travels are paid for by friends who believe that he has something of value to share.

At the Oliver gathering Mr. Walsh urged his listeners to become healers of the hurt and wounded, those who are the victims of the impersonalization of our society. The Oliver Chronicle summary of his remarks gives us the key to Anthony Walsh's remarkable influence:

"We all have the capacity to heal," he said. In this process, he listed three stages. First comes creative listening, treating the individual as worthy in himself. Second, once the problems are clearly seen, comes the healing. At this point, specialists may be called upon, but what is needed is the compassionate rather than the competent person. Third, comes the teaching stage in which the healer tells why he is what he is and asks the person whom he is helping just what he is ready to do for others. (6)


FOOTNOTES

1. Osoyoos Times. March 17, 1976.

2. Oliver Chronicle, April 1, 1976.

3. Unity, Vol. 20, No. 4 (June 11, 1975).

4. "Okanagan Image" was the name given the program sponsored by the Okanagan Mainline Regional Arts Council which reflected the arts in the region in 1976.

5. Penticton Herald, April 1, 1976.

6. Oliver Chronicle, April 1, 1976.

Drawing on Identity


Inkameep Day School Art Collection

The Virtual Museum of Canada provides a comprehensive look at the history of the Inkameep Day School. It contains a gallery of the artists' work as well as an audio and video catalogue.

Virtual Museum of Canada