How we fought racism in 1970s to start Toronto’s first Krishna temple

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Hare Krishna Temple Toronto

bobby hebert

HAMILTON: I was adopted from a Roman Catholic orphanage when I was one and a half years old and named Bobby Hebert. I still remember learning to walk with the help of the nuns who lived full time in the orphanage back then. My adopted parents moved from St. Johns,  New Brunswick, to Hamilton, Ontario, in 1951. They enrolled me in the Catholic school board here in Hamilton.

From the age of 10 to 14 years, I was an altar boy in the Hamilton diocese to assist the priests in their weekly services to their congregations. In those days the Catholic Churches were active in the lives of their members and attendance at Church was very high.

I remember praying to God please don’t let me die, kneeling in the pews while attending Church on daily basis during my grade school days at St. Peter and Paul. I now understand from my Guru Maharaja that this is the true nature of the spirit soul, incarcerated in the frame of this material body, made of earth, water, fire, air and ether. We all have that desire to live eternally because that is the constitutional position of the soul.  My adopted parents had started me on my quest for spiritual knowledge at a very early time in my life.

Bobby Hebert pic
We as young musicians. I am in the middle.

Influenced by the Beatles, I began playing the electric bass in 1962. I stopped attending Church on a daily basis. By 1963, I started playing in bands and in 1965 formed with my friend Ron Marinelli and Dr. Russ Weil, The Jameson Roberts Blues Band. We became one of the most popular music groups at that time in the Hamilton area and were heading for potential success in the music industry globally.

Our music careers led to us further to study the life of the individual members of the Beatles and especially George Harrison the lead guitarist who was also a devotee of Krishna and disciple of Bhaktivedanta Swami. The Beatles, along with our group, were part of the hippie movement and we believed that their was more to life than the plastic world and the fame and fortune lifestyle everyone around us were intensely pursuing.  We began studying yoga and adopted a vegetarian diet amongst ourselves and the large following of fans that hung out together with us here in downtown Hamilton.

Then that glorious day came when one of our friends brought a Bhagavad Gita as it is by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami into our circle of influence. That was the catalyst that started many of us on the correct path back home back to godhead.

Bhaktivedanta Swami, as we knew him back then, taught us in his translation of the Bhagavad Gita very clearly and concisely the science of self realization through his explanation of the teachings of Krsna, the Supreme Lord, the same God I had served as a Catholic altar boy growing up.

For us Bhaktivedanta Swami’s writings, lectures and letters fully satisfied our quest for transcendental knowledge.  His understanding that we are all individual parts and parcels of the One Supreme Personality of Godhead Krsna, was just the right message for our searching minds. In retrospect now, I realize this was Krishna’s Mercy on us fallen Kali Yuga souls, here in the city of steel, Hamilton.

Bhaktivinoda Thakur, one of the Guru’s in our famed disciplic succession, had first sent a book of his, on the Life Of Lord Chaitanya the Golden Avatara, to Mcgill University in Montreal in 1898.  So Canada has a special position in the evolution of the Global Sankirtan Movement of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. We have our plans in life and Krishna’s has his plans. I believe it was my destiny, past karma or by the mercy of my Spiritual Master that I had joined the Samkirtan movement of Sri. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in my early twenties.

Swami Bhaktivedanta had inspired us to join his mission – International Society For Krishna Consciousness – he started in 1966, in New York City, to spread love of God to the people in our own areas of the world through his books.  In those early years, during the personal presence of Bhaktivedanta Swami, all of us god brothers and god sisters connected on a pure transcendental wave of spiritual ecstasy emanating from Him. For many of us we tasted the eternal service of the Lord through his guidance and mercy. History will reveal that Bhaktivedanta Swami will be known as one of the greatest spiritual teachers of all time. In this age of quarrel and hypocrisy, also known as the Kali Yuga, He stood against the status quo and succeeded.

I officially joined the movement and shaved my head in Hamilton Jan 1971, with one of my best friends at the time Dave Roberts. He later moved south and opened Krishna Consciousness in the Caribbean and South America finally settling in Brazil.

The Hamilton Centre was very successful and there were 18 initiated Prabhupada disciples from our hometown, but Toronto was a bigger and a more important city that needed our help to expand Yonge Street Sankirtan or the public chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra and the distribution of Srila Prabhupada’s books. It was decided to close the Hamilton centre by the then leaders of the movement for our area.

ISKCON Toronto
Doing Hare Krishna chanting on Yonge Street in 1974.

We left Hamilton in 1971  to join the Toronto Temple to help our guru spread the mission of Lord Chaitanya in the big smoke.  We lived in a rented house at 187 Gerrard Street. It was just a few blocks from Yonge Street. I lived on the third floor with the 18 single men and practised strict celibacy following the Brahmacharya Ashrama. It was truly an amazing transcendental time for all of us. The second floor of the ashrama housed a small group of single young woman and two housholder couples. The first floor living room space was transformed into a miniature temple room and the dining room became the prasadam hall.

The more we worked enthusiastically as a team, chanting and distributing transcendental literatures, the more popular our centre became in downtown Toronto in the early seventies.  The kirtans, the festivals, the feasts and Prabhupada’s visit in 1975 made everything transcendentally blissful in our hard struggle to establish the mission. Our Guru Maharaja being personally present on the earth, surcharged the atmosphere with His transcendental power.

The early seventies was also the time when the East Indian people started to immigrate to Toronto from India. Their presence at the Sunday feast, along with local Torontonians, created a demand to expand our facilities.

When Srila Prabhupada came to Toronto in 1975 approximately 45 men, women and children lived at 187 Gerrard St. east, in the slum of Cabbagetown, across from Allan’s Gardens Park.  Swami’s plan was to acquire a new Temple in Toronto and the Fisher Mansion in Detroit to accommodate our growth.

Uttamasloka Prabhu, the President at that time, and myself as Vice-President arranged to take Srila Prabhupada to see the Church of the Missionary Alliance at 243 Avenue Road.  It was on the market for sale for $450,000 dollars. When we came to the inspection of the Church with Srila Prabhupada dressed in dhotis and our heads shaved with sikha’s, and our faces marked with tilak, it shocked the Christian board of directors.

ISKCON Toronto
We as young Hare Krishna devotees in downtown Toronto in early 1970s.

Srila Prabhupada liked the building and offered to loan Iskcon Toronto $300,000 as we had not saved any money in the bank and we went ahead and made a cash offer for $300,000 to buy the Church, which they turned down.  They further stated that they would rather burn the Church down than sell it to the Hare Krishna’s. The property was put back on the market and sold conditionally to a condo developer Murray Goldman.

His application for a demolition permit was denied at City Hall. The Church after 8 months came back on the market for sale.

I was appointed President of Iskcon Toronto by the GBC for Canada in !975 after Srila Prabhupada’s visit.  Srila Prabhupada believed in the location of the Temple he had toured with us. He believed it would be a great victory for the SKP movement if we could acquire title.. We were disappointed that we had been rejected by this Christian Group but Krishna had his plans.

In the meantime as the new President we organized our group to continue fund raising to get enough money for a downpayment to purchase a temple for Srila Prabhupada. As President I realized we couldn’t buy anything without saving money for a down payment to start.  I was determined to please my Guru Maharaja and had been studying books on how to acquire real estate and eventually used those lessons in the acquiring of the Avenue Road Temple..

One fateful day in 1976 I was called by our Temple lawyer Hart Pomerantz.  Hart was well known because of his success on TV as the star of “The Law and You”.  He informed me that the Church was back on the market and we should make an offer to buy it.. I said yes and we proceeded forward with a new plan of action I devised.  Our group of western devotees had been successfully collecting funds and I had been carefully saving the money as a down payment to complete our mission.

We made the offer with the help of a temple supporter S.C. Batra.  We made the offer in his name in trust to prevent any prejudice on the part of the Christians that had previously threatened to burn it down.  We paid $425,000 for the temple, my best recollection. The Church agreed to take back a first mortgage for $250,000. We arranged a second mortgage for $60,000 from the Bank of Montreal at the corner of Yonge and Queen and our SKP devotees and our congregation raised the balance through a variety of fundraising efforts.  We told the Christian Missionary Alliance group we would be transforming the Church into an East Indian Cultural Centre and they had no objections. It was the truth but we didn’t tell them it was going to become a Cultural Centre for the Hare Krishna’s.

After we closed the deal on the Church, Srila Prabhupada sent me a telegram, saying simply “Congratulations”.

He was so pleased with our victory that he sent me a letter later, stating that “this purchase is a top most triumph for Krishna, now use the building for preaching”. The church is one of the key locations in Toronto, being located just north of the Ontario Parliament buildings and south of Upper Canada College on Avenue Road. It is one of the main gateways into the city.

Srila Prabhupada asked me to put up a flashing neon sign, with the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra at the top of the church tower. The City of Toronto licensing department would only allow us a lighted blue and white Hare Krishna neon sign at the top of the bell tower overlooking the skyline of the city as they were afraid it would distract the drivers on Avenue Road.  It is still there to this day decorating Toronto with the Holy Name.

Bobby Hebert ISKCON Toronto
Me at the Toronto temple.
Bobby Hebert
Me with my guitar

Srila Prabhupada returned to Toronto in July 1976 for four days to celebrate the grand opening of the  new temple for Sri Sri Radha Gopinatha.

Looking back we feel blessed being a small part of the SKP movement of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in those early years of ISKCON Canada. All glories to Srila Prabhupada and Sri Sri Radha Gopinatha.

We continue our service here in Hamilton in 2018 to spread Srila Prabhupada’s mission inspired by Him.

(Based in Hamilton, Ontario, Visvakarma Dasa – also known as Bobby Hebert – is many things rolled into one: he is a yoga teacher, business consultant specializing in real estate, public speaker, producer, concert promoter, songwriter and a musician)

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