From punk to priest

Published January 1, 2011

DESPITE his initial appearance, including spiked hair, jeans and a leather jacket, Marty Levesque found his spiritual home in the Anglican church. Now a priest, he shares his journey. Illustration: Craig Smallish

Marty Levesque remembers well his first visit to an Anglican church in his hometown of Ottawa. His hair was styled in thick spikes pointing skyward and he was wearing a leather jacket and jeans. “I looked like a punk rocker,” he admits.

“It’s so nice that someone like you has come here today,” a person greeting him said. Then, Levesque was seated at the back of the church “with somebody to watch me, so that I wouldn’t take anything, so I wouldn’t disturb the service,” he says. “They did not want me there.”

Not surprisingly, he didn’t go back.

But Levesque was searching for a spiritual home, and he kept looking, exploring different churches and different denominations. Eventually, he found the biblical heritage and liturgical tradition drawing him back to the Anglican church. This time, he visited St. Mary the Virgin in Blackburn Hamlet, between Ottawa and Orleans. His first day there was very different from his earlier experience. It began with choosing his own place to sit.

“I participated in the service, and at the end…the priest just said, ‘Good morning’ and invited me to stay for coffee. So I stuck around.”

Despite his punk rock appearance, a number of parishioners struck up a conversation with Levesque over coffee and he felt sufficiently encouraged to keep coming back. “Nobody ever asked me about my past,” he recalls. “They were just happy I was there.”

Levesque’s past had indeed been troubled. When he was just 13, he fell in with the wrong crowd, hanging out and getting into drugs and violence. “I was rebelling against everything, and at times [it] became too much for my parents to take.”

He left home at 15 and panhandled for change, couch-surfing at friends’ homes and sleeping on the street a few times. At 17, he moved into his first apartment—-a two-bedroom-with three friends. He worked part-time at a minimum wage job, which paid his share of the rent. But to feed himself, he had to rely on soup kitchens and food banks.

One day, when he was panhandling on the street, some guys hassled him, eventually pouring hot coffee on him and then beating him up. No one in the busy street intervened. When it was all over, a shopkeeper came over and offered him $20 to clean out the alley behind his shop. Levesque took up his offer and when the work was done, he went to a cafe with the $20 to buy a meal. He’d been thrown out of the cafe many times before and the staff didn’t want to serve him. The restaurant was reserved for paying customers, they told him.

“I slapped down my $20 and demanded a menu,” Levesque says. Something changed that day. The shopkeeper taught him that “it doesn’t matter what you look like, doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you work hard and dedicate yourself to something, people can’t take away your basic human dignity. But you are going to have to claim that…. I decided that I didn’t want to be pushed down all the time anymore,” he says.

He found a better paying job pumping gas. Although he was still doing drugs, he worked hard and earned the respect of the shop owner. When Levesque was 24, the man offered him the chance to apprentice as a mechanic. By that time, Levesque realized he was at a disadvantage because he hadn’t finished high school. He jumped at the opportunity, completing the five-year course and graduating from college a licensed mechanic.

Along the way, he made another choice—to join a 12-step program and give up drugs. He’d been clean for several years by the time he found his way to St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church. It was the supportive community he’d been looking for, and the Rev. Ray Fletcher became a mentor. When Levesque asked him what he would need to do to become a priest, Fletcher helped him discern what kind of ministry he wanted and determine that he would have to go to university.

Levesque enrolled at Carleton University as a part-time mature student and worked 50 hours a week as a mechanic in the same shop where the owner had given him his first break. Somehow, he found time to take an active role at St. Mary’s, serving in the stewardship office, founding a communications committee and serving on the long-range planning committee. “They tried to make me a warden,” he says, but by that time, he had graduated and moved to London, Ont. to attend seminary at Huron University College.

Even at seminary, Levesque stood out in ways that not everyone appreciated. His favourite bowling shirts were emblazoned with logos or words from bands-everything from Siberian surf rock to rockabilly to punk. A couple of his classmates couldn’t believe he wanted to be a priest, he remembers. Others were more supportive and told him: “The church needs someone like you.”

During his time at seminary, he volunteered at London’s Daily Bread food bank. He related to the people. “They’re like my people,” he says. “Send me down with the drug addicts and the homeless and I’ll tell them all about God.”

Levesque graduated with distinction and was ordained to the deaconate last spring. On Nov. 30, he was priested and became the rector at St. Andrew’s Memorial in London. When asked about his vision for ministry, he says he wants to work with a vibrant worshipping community that lives missionally. He already has a plan to turn an empty plot of land owned by St. Andrew’s into a community garden, where people can use the plots in return for a tenth of the produce they grow.

“We’ll bless it on our altar, we’ll send it up to the Daily Bread and the fellowship centre will feed people,” says Levesque. “My ministry is about teaching people to be disciples who are going to engage as Christians 24/7.” Ω


  • Leigh Anne Williams

    Leigh Anne Williams joined the Anglican Journal in 2008 as a part-time staff writer. She also works as the Canadian correspondent for Publishers Weekly, a New York-based trade magazine for the book publishing. Prior to this, Williams worked as a reporter for the Canadian bureau of TIME Magazine, news editor of Quill & Quire, and a copy editor at The Halifax Herald, The Globe and Mail and The Bay Street Bull.

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