The Suprising Faces of Safekeeping : an Encounter With Christ Church Cathedral’s Head Verger

Mid-morning on a sunny December day, I walk through the Cathedral’s red doors into a darkened, silent church. I tiptoe down the aisle out of respect for the only person in the pews, a large man in a bulky coat who frowns as I glance at him and quickly turn away. At a table in the back, the head verger is speaking quietly on his cell phone. He is expecting me. He nods and raises his index finger to signal “one minute”. I won’t be long, he mouths.

John Cavacece, Head verger.

John Cavacece came to Montreal for love. He has now been married seven years to the woman he followed here. He tells me he worked in British-Columbia as a crane man for Rio Tinto for 32 years. He took an early retirement, but quickly discovered he wasn’t ready for a life of leisure. “After a few months, I got bored sitting in an apartment doing this,” he says, twiddling his thumbs to make his point.

In 2011, he came to work part-time as a verger at the Cathedral. He left to work at St-George’s on Peel Street for a couple of years, but came back when the opportunity arose.

As we continue our talk, a woman comes in and plunks two cookie tins on the table in front of him. “These are for you,” she says. “For your lunch room. Merry Christmas!”

John exchanges a few words with her, thanking her. He jokes that his colleague with the sweet tooth will particularly appreciate her gift. Over the next half hour or so, he will graciously juggle our interview and requests from members of the Anglican Women in Communications group who have come to set up an after-office buffet. They are hosting a Memorial service at the Cathedral in honour of the young women killed at the Polytechnique 28 years ago.

A refuge, yes, but there are rules

“You must see so much!” I say.

“We sure do,” he responds.

I tell him I was surprised to see a disheveled man sitting in a pew and leaning against a column to sleep on one of my first visits to the Cathedral. “I was raised in an environment where one had to be properly attired and mind one’s Ps and Qs in church,” I say.

“You can sleep, but you can’t lie down,” John says. “That’s the only rule.”

The Cathedral extends its hospitality to its grounds as well. It is not unusual to see several homeless people sleeping on the grass or taking shelter in the church doorways. One would expect this kindness to inspire respect for the environment, but it doesn’t always. Last summer, someone built a fire in a corner of the building.

It is not unusual to see people sleeping on the grass or taking shelter in the church doorways.

“We had to bar them,” says John with surprising calm, considering these people endangered everything that is entrusted to him. “After a while, we let them come back, but we made it clear to them: there are rules. No alcohol, no drugs, no vandalism.”

Jeffrey Mackie, Assistant verger.

He and his team make sure the policy is respected, calling in police if their admonitions and warnings are not heeded.

Putting the “care” in caretaker
The vergers know their people and genuinely care about them. John tells me of one man who comes every day, seven days a week, year round.

“He stands and prays for a while and then sits down, leans his forehead against the back of the pew in front of him and goes to sleep. He is here every week day until late afternoon and right up until closing time on weekends. We look for him if he misses a day. If we ask where he’s been, he will simply answer, ‘Away.’ He doesn’t like to talk much.”

Rod Roberts, Assistant verger.

I remember the frowning man in the pew. I would not be surprised if he were John’s taciturn regular. It warms my heart to know that he is embraced and cared for by John, Jeffrey Mackie and Rod Roberts, the capable, empathetic vergers of Christ Church Cathedral. Des hommes de coeur (men of heart), I think to myself.

“What is the best part of your job?” I ask John.

“The spiritual aspect,” he says, surprising me again, this time with his lack of cynicism. “Mopping the floors in this space and seeing the people praying.”

I think I understand. Despite who may be walking around, or sleeping in a corner, or setting up a kiosk or buffet, or pinning a leaflet to the bulletin board, or asking endless questions, there is a pervasive peace inside the cathedral. It allows people to get in touch with the spiritual aspects of life, to connect with something larger than themselves, to find some peace in these troubled and uncertain times. It is the spirit of Christ Church Cathedral, a spirit nurtured and protected by John and his team, as they maintain the beautiful building and grounds and look out for the people who are in their care, whether for a moment, or for life.

Nadia Kouvasheva to perform in Oasis Musicale concert series
Russian-Australian pianist Nadia Koudasheva presents a piano recital of virtuosic masterpieces by Rachmaninov and Ravel, alongside rarely-heard Russian Bach transcription treasures. A recipient of several prizes and awards, Ms Kouvasheva is an active soloist, chamber musician, accompanist and teacher who has also performed in Australia, Russia and a number of European countries.

When:    Saturday, January 20th, at 4:30 p.m.
Where:   Christ Church Cathedral, 635 Ste-Catherine St. West, Montreal
Suggested minimum ‘participation donation’ of $10.

Support the restoration of our beautiful cathedral
Of the funds raised by the campaign, $7,470,000 will go to repair the spire, restore the masonry and architectural elements, and upgrade the church interior. Plans to enrich the musical experience include $180,000 earmarked for the restoration of the Karl Wilhelm organ and replacement of the concert piano. Please consider leaving a gift for future generations by clicking here and donating what you can. Big or small, every donation counts!

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4 Replies to “The Suprising Faces of Safekeeping : an Encounter With Christ Church Cathedral’s Head Verger”

  1. While he was first working part-time at the Cathedral, John also drove the night bus for Dans La Rue one shift every two weeks. He designed and constructed the rolling platform (bema) on which the altar at the crossing is located.

  2. ameaningfull tribute toourpresent vergersJohn, Rod and Jeffreywho cater daily to Cathedral welfare, providing aquiet welcome within their daily duties to all those Who visit For A moment of peace or prayer, and,in retrospect to former devoted vergers, Rob,
    Al Backman, Ken Richardson, how fortunate The Cathedral has been over the years to have inspired Such loyalty and dedication.

    1. Thank you for your lovely comments and for including past vergers in the praise. Well deserved words indeed!

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