I moved into the West End of Winnipeg just a little under eight years ago. Several months later the Ellice cafe opened. The cafe was operated by New Life Ministries and was designed as a place where people of all social status and income could find an affordable place to eat and to gather in community. In this the restaurant was intended to help further the vision of New Life Ministries and its founding pastor Harry Lehotsky.
I knew of New Life before I moved into the neighbourhood. My friends Steve and Bev Solomon were members, and I had been to the church for Steve’s ordination as a Baptist minister before I ever moved into the neighbourhood. When I did enter the neighbourhood I moved into one of the New Life apartments, a blessing for a period of time that has been marked by student life, part-time employment or unemployment.
The cafe opened in February of 2005 and I wandered in for the first time a couple of months later. Almost immediately the place became a home away from home for me. The atmosphere was relaxed. The staff was more than friendly, and the food was good, plentiful and cheap. Sure there were growing pains at the time. I had to send the odd order back and occasionally the wrong order arrived, but with most of the people inexperienced in the ways of food service I was willing to make allowances for such things.
As time went by and the routines became established, the cafe became a place where I new I could consistently get a good meal at the right price. More than that it became a place where I could enjoy my meal while reading a book or visiting with the staff or making and renewing friendships. It seemed that rarely a visit went by where I didn’t run into friends from the neighbourhood, or friends from outside of the neighbourhood who came down to support the cafe. Even this morning I wound up having a conversation with a woman named Margot (don’t know if that’s the correct spelling), a Winnipegger living in New York who stops in the at the Cafe when she comes home to visit her mother.
On top of that were the characters. There were a lot of them over the years, but the most memorable would have to be Peter. Peter lived just down the street from the cafe and would wander in several times during the day. Peter always had something to say. Much of it was unintelligible, but he still always had something to say. Peter was always showing up with gifts for the staff, often such things as half-eaten boxes of chocolates.
Peter is no longer around at the cafe. Years of living in the squalid conditions that still characterize parts of this neighbourhood took their toll on him. He was hospitalized several time and for long periods and during those time it was the staff of the Ellice Cafe that were among his most faithful visitors. Fortunately, he now is living oustide the city where he is able to get some care. Still, it seems strange to be sitting here on this final day at the Cafe knowing he won’t wander in with some pronouncement to make.
For years the Ellice Cafe has struggled to find the balance between running the cafe in such away that it isn’t a constant drain on resources. In the end the drain on resources won out, and the cafe is now closing, with the theatre following suit at the end of the year. It’s a sad day, but it’s also a day for giving thanks.
Thanks for all the good meals. Thanks for all the good friends that I’ve made here over the years. Thanks also for friendships that were renewed and strengthened over the years. Thanks that there are people like Harry and the members of New Life Ministries who want to make a better neighbourhood and are willing to try new things and take big risks, even when those risks don’t always pay off in the way hoped.
While today may mark the end of the Ellice Cafe, here’s hoping that it doesn’t mark the end to the idea and spirit behind it. The West End still needs more gathering places. The motto of the Ellice Cafe was …white collar, …blue collar, …no collar, in a world that constantly finds new ways to tear people apart, we need more place that, however imperfectly they achieve it, work towards finding new ways to bring people together.
Thanks, Ellice Cafe, it was a great seven years.