A gentle social-justice giant will be laid to rest Nov. 19, and many people in different parts of the world are mourning. Fr. Ernest “Ernie” Schibli died Nov. 12 at Ste. Anne’s Hospital in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue; the 80-year-old diocesan priest had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
In his 56 years of ministry, Fr. Ernie had served in parishes, high schools and diocesan services. Although never a pastor, he was the priest-in-charge of a unique mission in the West Island for a total of 25 years, St. Edward the Confessor.
What isn’t evident from the diocesan records is his dynamic role as a driving force connecting Montrealers of goodwill with their marginalized brothers and sisters in the Global South, particularly those in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. He did so faithfully, creatively and humbly for almost 50 years. This was his most enduring, if unofficial, pastoral ministry.
Fr. Ernie was a 31-year-old priest when the 1971 Synod of Bishops met to discuss justice in the world. The synod fathers declared: “Our action is to be directed above all at those people and nations which because of various forms of oppression and because of the present character of our society are silent, indeed voiceless, victims of injustice.”
The document spoke directly to the young priest’s heart: give voice to the “silent victims of injustice.” That year he gathered like-minded persons and together they formed a Justice and Peace Committee.
Early on, Fr. Ernie recognized that the call to justice and peace was not exclusive to Catholics but was an appeal to all Christians, religions and people of goodwill. Therefore, in 1975, he helped to found the Social Justice Committee of Montreal, SJC (now known as the Social Justice Connection). And in one way or another, the work of the SJC formed part of the basic thread woven into all the diocesan appointments where he ministered as a priest.
At the time of its founding, the lives of many Catholic leaders in Central American countries were threatened because of the call to give voice to the “silent victims of injustice.” Among them was Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was murdered.
The SJC generated local support for the plight of the poor and oppressed in these countries through its education and solidarity-action programs, even providing a Canadian on-the-ground presence in Central America when requested or needed. In one instance, the soft-spoken, low-key Fr. Ernie found himself negotiating with a senior army official for armoured vehicles to evacuate “the silent victims of injustice” out of a contested war zone. He was successful.
Fr. Ernie not only formed strong personal ties with the people of Central America, he also encouraged Montreal parishes and groups to do the same through parish-twinning projects and exchange visits between Canadians and people in Central America.
Like the vision of its recognized founder, the SJC has tackled numerous peace and justice issues over time – its work on debt cancellation, on improving Canadian mining practices in underdeveloped nations – but Fr. Ernie has always insisted that “we make sure we listen to what they [the silent victims] want,” recalled Derek MacCuish of the SJC.
While many social activists operate from an analytic-strategic perspective, Fr. Ernie “was driven by the heart; he was ever patient and always ready to listen,” MacCuish said. His strategy was “What can we do,” and whatever was decided, it needed “to be done together.”
In accepting the Bishop Crowley Award in 1997 for his lifetime devotion to justice and peace, Fr. Ernie said in an interview with the Catholic Times, “I’m the tip of the iceberg and no one stands alone. Others less well-known are doing as much. I’m very conscious that, as a priest, I can get to places other people can’t.”
Fr. Ernie did so effectively, generously and with much humility and simplicity.
The 1971 Synod of Bishops message states: “Many Christians are drawn to give authentic witness on behalf of justice by various modes of action for justice, action inspired by love in accordance with the grace which they have received from God.” Fr. Ernie Schibli was truly one of those Christians.
The details of his diocesan ministry in God’s service to others follow in the biography below.
Fr. Ernest Lawrence Schibli
January 5, 1940 -- November 12, 2020
Fr. Ernest Lawrence Schibli, ordained a priest on May 9, 1964, began his priestly ministry as a curate at St. Willibrord Parish for two years, during which he served as part-time chaplain both at John F. Kennedy and Verdun Catholic high schools.
In 1966, the 26-year-old priest was appointed assistant executive director of the Diocesan Priesthood Guild, serving as the assistant vocations director (English sector). The guild operated the John XXIII Student Centre at Loyola College (later known as Belmore House), where Fr. Schibli resided and served as director. The centre provided a place for students who were considering the priesthood to discern their vocation. Before working full time at the centre, he also served part-time as chaplain at Leroux High School in LaSalle.
In 1970, Fr. Schibli was appointed curate at St. Kevin Parish and a year later, also served as a chaplain part-time at St. Paul School.
In September 1974, he began studies in economics and political science at Concordia University, but his course of studies was interrupted seven months later when he was appointed priest-in-charge of St. Edward the Confessor Mission and curate at St. Edmund of Canterbury. He served for seven years, during which time he founded the Social Justice Committee of Montreal (1975), a registered charity dedicated to providing “education and advocacy about global poverty and inequality.” It was renamed The Social Justice Connection in 2014.
In 1981, he was named an assistant to the director of the Office for English-Language Affairs (OELA), Archdiocese of Montreal, responsible for social justice. He left the West Island parishes the following year to serve full time at the OELA for the next five years.
Fr. Schibli then joined the pastoral team serving southwest Montreal, based at St. John Brébeuf Parish (1987-89), before being appointed to a four-year-plus mandate as assistant at St. Monica Parish in 1989.
Beginning in 1995, Fr. Schibli was working full time with the Social Justice Committee. In 1998, he was named associate director of the diocesan social action office, a post he held until 2007. Meanwhile, he was reappointed to St. Edward the Confessor Mission in 2001 and served as priest-in-charge until 2019, after having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.