The innkeeper who offered shelter to an expectant couple 2000 years ago - immortalized in the Nativity story - had no idea his gesture would serve as a benchmark for welcoming the stranger.

In that same spirit, the Archdiocese of Montreal took in dozens of strangers this fall, mostly children and women, three of whom were pregnant. At press time, 35 of them had been settled in their own apartments and were preparing to celebrate their first Christmas holiday in Canada.

This band of newcomers, representing citizens from nine countries - 21 of them from six African nations - have one thing in common: they're among the thousands leaving the United States to seek asylum in Canada, the majority of whom are Haitians.

In response to the unprecedented influx of asylum seekers, the archdiocese teamed up with Notre-Dame-des-Victoires Parish on Lacordaire Street to open a 12-room shelter in the two upper floors of the parish rectory.

Le Pont, a temporary home

Called Le Pont, the temporary shelter can house up to 25 asylum seekers. Their goal is to help the newcomers find more permanent accommodations within a month, says Alessandra Santopadre, dio-cesan co-ordinator for programs to assist refugees and asylum seekers.

Le Pont received its first guests Oct. 2. It has sheltered 37 people to date. With most of its residents now settled in apartments, it will close its doors for two weeks to undertake renovations and reopen Jan. 8.

Asylum claimants receive a monthly social assistance allowance of at least $1,000 until they are able to find work. But to rent a suitable lodging, set up an apartment with donated furnishings, and find their way in a new neighborhood and country, the asylum seekers depend primarily upon charitable and non-profit organizations. Families coming through Le Pont can expect help in all these areas, assures Santopadre.

Archbishop Christian Lépine launched a diocesan appeal last August, and about two dozen parishes offered support, she said. However, more resources will be needed as more asylum seekers pass through Le Pont, Santopadre says. 

The archdiocese is also receiving support from groups like Catholic Action Montreal (CAM). The recently formed group mobilized its volunteers to help about a dozen Le Pont families relocate to more permanent accommodations, reports Judy Wong, executive director. The need will be ongoing, says Santopadre, but the diocese will be there for the long haul.    

With 41,355 asylum/refugee claims as of Nov. 1, Canada is set to post its highest application rate since 2001. The spike is attributed to south-of-the-border politics where President Donald Trump removed the Temporary Protection Status (TPS) for Haitians living illegally in the United States. That news, which raised fears among other groups, created a stampede to the Canadian border. Of the 16,992 who illegally crossed from January to Nov.1; 15,381 have done so through Canada's Quebec/New York border, the majority being Haitian.