History – CMHA St. Catharines Branch

About 1966, a group of volunteers met at the Queen Street Branch of the YM-YWCA to see what could be done to assist persons who had spent time in the Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital re-integrate back into the community after their hospital stay.  Generally this was after a period of one month to more than a year with the result these people often did not have any family connections or friends when they returned.  There was a lot of discrimination around mental health issues and these persons did not have anyone or any organization to advocate on their behalf.

As these meetings went on for about one to two years, more volunteers were recruited and a limited amount of fundraising took place.

About 1967, the group applied to the Ontario Division of the CMHA, developed a Board of Directors and received a charter to provide Mental Health Services and Education for the residents of the former Lincoln County.  Limited funding was provided by the United Way in St. Catharines.

At this time they were able to obtain the first location on William Street in St. Catharines and opened what was then known as the White Cross Centre.  This drop-in centre was staffed with volunteers two evenings a week and on Sunday afternoons. Gradually, as the volunteer complement was increased, the centre’s hours were extended.  Volunteers received training, especially active listening, from some board members who were professors at Brock University.  At this time there was no paid staff; any administration was done by Board volunteers.

In order to meet people who would be returning to the community, volunteers made monthly trips to the Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital and began to gain the trust of the patients.  Consequently, when the patients returned to the community, they would know someone they could trust and learn from about the White Cross Centre.

After the United Way provided more funding, a part-time Coordinator was hired, some secretarial help hired, and the Centre was open longer hours.

The program eventually outgrew the William Street location and so began a series of moves to King Street, Queen Street, and then to a house at 1 York Street.  During this period, the White Cross concept was abandoned by CMHA Ontario and each branch was encouraged to develop its own drop-in centre.  Staff increased with each move, as well as United Way funding, and more programs were developed.  The branch undertook limited fundraising through memberships, bingos and pop-cans of pennies, and donations to the branch were encouraged.  When Lincoln and Welland Counties formed the Region of Niagara, the branch re-applied to the CMHA for a new charter to form the St. Catharines and District Branch.

The United Way allowed the branch to establish its own building fund towards finding a permanent home for the CMHA in St. Catharines which resulted in the Branch purchasing a building at 15 Wellington Street.  After a number of years it became evident that better services and education could be provided if one agency existed in the Region of Niagara. Government funding for many programs became dependent on the agency being able to provide Region-wide programs.

Discussions began with the Niagara South Branch with a view to combining programs and staff and so the Niagara Branch of the CMHA was formed with the mandate to provide Mental Health programs and education throughout the Region of Niagara.


John Kelly

First President of CMHA Niagara