“The Least of These”


No plush seats. No ornate decor. No subdued lighting. No modern sound system. No ushers. Of course not. After all, this isn’t a concert hall; it’s Montréal’s busiest metro station. And yet it is a concert hall—the home of la Chorale de l’Accueil Bonneau. Under the harsh fluorescent glare of this noisy, cavernous station stand 18 men in black pants, white shirts, and a smattering of caps, berets, scarves, and bandannas. The singers range in age from 22 to 69. Their weathered faces glow with a joy that almost masks the lingering evidence of misfortune and rejection. “Oh happy day!” they sing, and you can’t help but believe them.

A subway train rumbles to a stop and releases a host of Saturday shoppers, weary students, and weekend workers. Many pause to listen. A few step forward and drop coins into a hat resting on the floor where you would expect the director to stand.

The performers don’t look much like a choir. In fact, they look as if someone just pulled them off the street. They don’t act like a choir either. They don’t stand up straight, and they don’t stand still. One of the older singers—sporting a long, shaggy beard—wanders through the crowd, presenting roses to women. During one of the more lively numbers, two of the singers find partners among the listeners and start to dance.

The choir’s repertoire is varied—everything from “Nearer My God to Thee,” straight from the Latter-day Saint hymnbook, to the pop song “California Dreamin’.” Although some of the men have good voices, these are not professionally trained musicians. One of the soloists even sings a bit off-key. But their energy more than compensates for any lack of training or natural ability. They sing with their whole hearts, and it is clear they are enjoying themselves. So is the audience, which changes about every three minutes as trains come and go.

By the end of two hours the hat is nearly full, and the concert is over. Only then is it evident this choir has a leader. As the last song ends and the crowd disperses, a slender man with dark hair, glasses, and a radiant smile steps from the ranks. His name is Pierre Anthian, and the choir, he will tell you, is merely an extension of his religious beliefs.

Pierre Anthian, son of a French army officer, was born in Algeria during that country’s war for independence. When he was four years old, his family moved back to Pau, a city in southwest France. A short time later his parents divorced, leaving his mother, Michka, with custody of their four children. When Pierre was nine years old, the missionaries found them. The children were baptized first, followed by their mother.

Sister Anthian taught gospel lessons, including Christlike love and service, the best way they can be taught: through personal application. She and her children served both in the Church and in the community. Sometimes the family would invite homeless people to share a meal. Pierre’s volunteer efforts included hospitals and rest homes, homeless shelters and hostels.

After graduating from dental school, Pierre served a full-time mission in Switzerland. Upon returning home, he began making dentures, first in the French Riviera and later in Paris. By then, helping others had become a way of life, and he volunteered to serve meals at the largest homeless shelter in Paris. It was here he became troubled over merely giving handouts. “It’s good to give food,” he says, “but what do we teach in the Church? We teach people to be self-reliant. So I began looking for an idea, a special tool, to give these people dignity and autonomy.”

Eventually, it occurred to him that music might be just the tool he needed. Not only was music part of Pierre’s religious culture, it was a personal passion for him. He had studied music, particularly choral music, in conservatories of Pau, Cannes, and Paris, and he had once directed a Church choir. He determined to start a choir among society’s outcasts.

The choir ascends the stairs to street level. A yellow school bus will soon arrive to take them to a Catholic church on the outskirts of Montréal where they will perform later this evening. The afternoon sun is pleasant, and the autumn leaves, though past their prime, still adorn the city with splashes of faded yellow and rusty red. While waiting for the bus, one choir member, Jean-Louis, tells how the choir has saved him from harmful addictions. “Now I get high on music,” he boasts. Others have similar stories.

The choir has given them something a handout could never impart: dignity. They consider themselves professional musicians. They are giving something back to society now and are being rewarded for their work.

The singers speak glowingly of Pierre. They know where they would be without him, but their friendship runs deeper than gratitude. They tease him incessantly, and he both invites the teasing and returns it. This is not a somber group. Their faces are scarred by alcohol, drugs, violence, jail, and hunger. But painted boldly over the pain still visible in each weathered and mistreated human canvas are hope and joy and good humor.

The bus finally comes, and on the way Pierre talks about how la Chorale de l’Accueil Bonneau came to be.

Pierre’s idea for a choir of homeless men never got off the ground in Paris because he didn’t stay in Paris. His older brother and sister had moved to Montréal, and he visited them frequently. In April 1995 he moved to Québec to get married. His engagement didn’t work out, but Pierre fell in love with Canada and decided to stay. He set up a successful dental lab and, of course, began volunteering.

“On my second day here,” he says, “I inquired at the tourist office where I could volunteer.” By coincidence, the tourism officer was a volunteer at l’Accueil Bonneau, a homeless shelter, and told him how to find it. “I arrived in time for lunch, and they gave me an apron,” he recalls. “I started to serve lunch to the homeless. For more than a year I did this.”

But the same frustrations he had felt in Paris resurfaced, and so did his idea. He typed a flyer and handed out 600 copies to the men in the food line. It offered employment to “singers, even beginners, for part-time work. Men only. Any age. Any nationality. Must love to sing. Musical knowledge not necessary.” Thirty men expressed interest, but at the first rehearsal only 3 showed up. However, 7 came the next day. The day after, 12 showed up. Pierre taught them four Christmas carols from the LDS hymnbook.

The metro was an inspired and logical location for their performances. “If the mountain won’t come to you, you must go to the mountain,” says Pierre. “Thousands and thousands of people come to the metro.”

Residents of Montréal are accustomed to seeing homeless people on the street, but they were not prepared for what they encountered in the metro station at 7:30 A.M. on 17 December 1996. It was an unforgettable experience for the performers and the commuters. “I couldn’t see the faces of the spectators,” Pierre explains, “because I was conducting, but I could see the faces of my friends in the choir. Their faces changed. People crowded around us. Several missed their trains to listen longer. One woman began to cry, and her sobs filled that improbable event with incredible emotion. It was like a tide coming in. People were crying, singing with us, putting money in the hat to the cadence of the melody, clink, clink. They started to make a line to put money in the hat. It was a wonderful experience.”

That first concert brought in more money than they had expected. The next morning the choir earned even more. “But the greatest pay the men received,” says Pierre, “was when people came directly up to them, spoke to them, and shook their hands. This meant much to men who had spent their lives digging in garbage cans, begging, or even stealing simply to survive.”

The choir sang every day that Christmas season except Sundays. The money they earned allowed all of them to spend the holiday in more comfortable circumstances. A few were able to visit relatives. Some hadn’t seen their families in years.

“After the last performance,” Pierre recalls, “I asked my friends, ‘Do you want to keep going with this choir, or do you want to stop now and start it up again next Christmas?’ ‘Keep going,’ they insisted.”

It is late Saturday evening. It has been a long day for the choir, and you can tell they are tired only because their voices don’t blend as well as they did earlier in the program and they hit a few painfully flat notes. But the more than 200 listeners at the church don’t seem to mind. The singers still exude the same level of energy they did this afternoon in the metro, and several of them patrol the aisles, pulling people at random from the audience to join them onstage.

The listeners have been treated to hymns and popular songs—but now comes the audience’s favorite part of the concert. The melody and words might be unfamiliar to a visitor from outside Québec, but it is obvious this song has special meaning to the locals. Everyone is standing, holding hands, swaying back and forth in time with the music, singing with his or her whole soul. Tears flow freely. The song ends, and for a magical moment there is only silence. Then the audience, sensing that this was the final number yet not wanting the magic to end, breaks into wild applause and calls for an encore. The choir obliges, not once but twice, and finally the audience lets them go.

After the choir’s first subway concert, the media quickly learned about them. Two days later they were invited to introduce the weather forecast for a large television station, and the next morning articles appeared in most of the Québec newspapers. This unexpected free publicity allowed the choir to sign contracts for concerts at festivals, schools, churches, banks, and other television stations.

“The media,” says Pierre, “has helped give us a voice for our message that life is beautiful, that it is really worth living, and that we should never give up. Everyone deserves a second chance, and no one should be excluded, even if he or she is different.”

This belief motivated Pierre at the very beginning to keep two choir members who sing off-key. “Being able to sing is not a requirement to be a member of this choir,” he explains. “They have suffered too much rejection already.”

Brother Anthian has several goals for the choir. One is to infuse joy, love, and hope into the lives of men who have in the past sought to salve their pain with drugs, alcohol, and other vices. The fulfillment of this goal is clear in the life of Nicolas “Colas” Allaire, who hands out roses during subway concerts. Now 65, Colas was raised in a Montréal orphanage until age 17. With no formal education and no family, friends, or money, he was never able to find work. In winter he made snow caves to keep from freezing to death. Sometimes he committed crimes just to be put in jail so he would have something to eat every day. This is his first regular job. Since joining the choir, he says, “my life has been paradise. I have made friends, and I have started to support myself. I now have a small apartment, and I am happy.”

Another of Brother Anthian’s goals is to share this joy, love, and hope with others. “For example,” he says, “after a concert in the subway, a lady took my hand in hers and told me she had just learned she had cancer. She had wanted to give up. But after listening to these men who had come so far, she had renewed courage.”

A large part of the dignity these men now feel comes from knowing they are giving something back to society. They are making a difference—particularly at schools. Children sometimes rebel, and they won’t listen to their parents and teachers. But they listen when choir members say: “I stopped learning in school; I stopped obeying my parents. I disobeyed my leaders. I disobeyed my teachers. I took drugs and drank alcohol, and now I’m homeless. So please, study hard, respect your parents and teachers, and don’t take drugs.”

The sharing of their good fortune with others is a long-standing practice with the choir. Compassion comes quite naturally to these men. They divide between themselves the cash they earn from singing in the metro, but the money they charge for their other concerts goes directly to l’Accueil Bonneau homeless shelter.

Perhaps one of the choir’s most meaningful opportunities to help came in the wake of a tragedy. In June 1998 a gas leak ignited and destroyed the homeless shelter. The explosion killed 3 people and injured 33 others. Within months, however, the community had donated a large amount of money. The choir made a major contribution in the fund-raising effort, staging more than a dozen concerts to raise money for the new building. In the place of the old, rundown structure, a modest new shelter was built.

In December 1999, at the request of a Québec television station and a prominent Montréal newspaper, the choir toured the province of Québec, staging 64 Christmas concerts in 20 days. This tour was an offer they simply could not refuse: People attending the concerts brought food for the homeless and the poor. It was another chance for the choir to “give something back.”

Asked to list the choir’s greatest accomplishments, Pierre answers that foremost is the fact the choir exists at all, “that it was created among men with broken, lonely lives.” Second is that they have stayed together. Only those close to the choir understand how difficult this project has been. Many of these men have experienced so much rejection, loneliness, and despair that their lives are still fragile. Giving up long-entrenched patterns of living is not easy, and some men have returned to the streets because they haven’t been able to abide by Pierre’s rules or survive the rigors of the choir’s busy schedule.

The rules are simple but, for most, require a dramatic change in lifestyle: No violence. No drugs or alcohol during any performance or rehearsal. And they must be on time. “The choir is a school,” Pierre explains. “If we stay in school, we can learn. Many homeless people drink a lot and sleep during the day. At night they often don’t have a place to sleep, so they walk during the night. In the morning they find a place to sleep, and afterwards there’s nothing to do, so they drink. My work is to give them a schedule. I start them at seven o’clock in the morning, so they have to get up early, and they have to get to bed early.” Because of this schedule, many of the men, some of whom are alcoholics, have given up alcohol completely. Music has taken its place, and, as Pierre suggests, “Music is therapy.”

“It is a very positive feeling, a natural high,” says Roby, a former welfare recipient. “I don’t use drugs since I started with the choir. It’s got me so busy I need my sobriety or I can’t make it through the day.”

Some of the choir members are former criminals. “Let’s just say thievery and attempted murder are not the worst offenses on the list,” Pierre once told a reporter. “And they are my friends.” Some people on the street, he is quick to explain, have drug or alcohol problems. Some run afoul of the law. But often these difficulties are the result, and not the cause, of their sad situations. In many cases these individuals “have simply been unluckier than you or me.”

Because of Pierre’s idea, the luck of 17 men has changed. All but two now have an apartment or at least a room to sleep in. The two who still don’t have an apartment choose to spend their portion of the money on other things. “I don’t judge them,” says Pierre. “It’s their decision. Sometime maybe they’ll change their minds. But if they obey the rules, work hard, are nice, and are punctual, it’s okay.”

Sunday morning. Brother Anthian is teaching Primary in Montréal’s Hochelaga Ward. Five of his eight class members are present—he teaches the boys from age 8 to age 11—and they are learning the Ten Commandments. Pierre uses his fingers to help the boys remember the Lord’s laws. One finger reminds them that God should be number one in their lives. Seven fingers mean a man should stay with his wife seven days a week. Pierre holds his hands out, palms down, and tucks his thumbs under. Eight fingers mean no stealing—because it’s difficult to steal without thumbs. Each commandment is there in the boys’ hands. Brother Anthian quizzes them, and five eager hands wave in the air. They all know the answers.

Pierre has also served on the high council of the Montréal Québec Stake and also as stake mission president. He neither hides his religion nor forces it on anyone. He simply lives it. “Not only do I speak to the choir members about the Church,” he says, “but they have all performed in sacrament meetings and have presented free concerts at the stake center.”

The Church has received a good deal of positive attention because of Pierre’s work. In 1997 the Canadian National Assembly awarded him the Volunteer of the Year award. “One television program,” he says, “presented me as ‘the Mormon priest who pulls the homeless out of hell.’ It is easy for me to bring the conversation around to the gospel when I am interviewed, for it is clear that I never would have had this idea if I had not received the family and religious education that I had. And I never would have had the strength to continue without the Lord’s daily help.”

Why did Pierre choose the homeless for his volunteer efforts instead of some other worthy cause? His answer is simple and sincere. The Savior, he says, is his role model. Jesus Christ calls to all, but He ministered often among the poor, the homeless, the despondent, the outcasts. “The message is simple,” Pierre says. “If we walk in His footsteps, we will find happiness for ourselves and for the people we serve. We are His hands, His instruments.”

His experience serving the homeless, Pierre concludes, has brought him closer to the Savior and to those he serves. “The scriptures are more alive for me, especially Matthew 25 [Matt. 25] and Mosiah 4:14–30. A sweet feeling of peace confirms to me every day that my place is at their side.”

[photos] Photography by Roger Terry, except as noted

[photo] The choir has recorded five CDs and performed more than 700 concerts, but Pierre does not consider these its greatest accomplishments. (Photograph by Daniel Auclair, © courtesy of magazine 7 Jours.)

[photo] The choir rehearses in a third-story room at the Bonneau Mission on Montréal’s riverfront. Concerts helped pay for the new building after its predecessor was destroyed in a gas explosion.

[photo] Brother Anthian with his Primary class. From left: Amand Umuhoza, Kevin Charles, Maxime Vallée-Carrier, Jonathan Denis, and Frantz Jean-Baptiste.

Some information in this article is taken from an interview of Pierre Anthian by Sylvie Patea-Tramel.