Homeless man turned church caretaker reconnects with sister after 22 years


It had been a rough couple of nights after a whirlwind week and Gordon Petrie, who was coming down off a bender, had a lot on his mind.

It was July and he’d been told that the shed he’d been living in behind a church on 108 Avenue near Whalley Boulevard in Surrey, B.C. — first as a squatter and later, after gaining the trust of the parish president, as a guest — was a fire hazard and he had to move.

Even on a good day, it would be a lot for Petrie to process, and this particular day was shaping up to be anything but good.

But as he was coming out of his daze, he heard a woman’s voice that sounded a lot like his deceased mother’s, and everything changed.

“I heard, ‘Gordon, is that you?’ — just like my mother used to say,” Petrie said. “It took me a couple seconds to realize what was going on. Then she popped around the corner and I just lit up.”

It was his sister, Kris Zemlak, who he hadn’t seen in 22 years.

Kris Zemlak and Gordon Petrie reunited in Surrey, B.C., at the Holy Cross Ukrainian Catholic Church in July, after not seeing each other for 22 years. (Bruce Hitchen)

“It’s hard to explain walking up to someone you haven’t seen for that long, and it was really, really difficult to see how he lived,” Zemlak said. 

“I could tell what his lifestyle had done to him.”

Finding shelter

Back in March, Bruce Hitchen, the parish president for Ukrainian Holy Cross Catholic Church in Surrey, found out that someone was squatting in a shed on church property. One of the parishioners spotted a mystery man sweeping the parking lot.

Hitchen discovered that Petrie had been chasing away thieves and keeping the grounds clean, so he started giving him odd jobs to do for cash.

He was so impressed with Petrie’s work ethic, Hitchen asked church leadership if they’d fix up an old house on the property for Petrie to live in.

“The house was deemed inhabitable, there were mould issues and it wasn’t going to happen,” Hitchen said. “We started asking, what other kind of solution can we come up with for Gordon?”

In early July, Hitchen went to see Petrie at the shed to discuss housing options and saw him talking to a woman he didn’t recognize.

“Both of them were almost in tears,” Hitchen said. “Gordon was like, ‘Bruce, you won’t believe who is here. This is my sister.'”

Petrie uses a lawn trimmer on the church grounds in October. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Reconnecting

Petrie and Zemlak grew up together in Prince George, B.C., but he left with his mother to live in the Lower Mainland when he was a teenager. Zemlak stayed behind with family in the northern city and remained there her whole life.

Petrie would return occasionally for special family events, but he lost touch with his sister when he ran into problems with addiction.

Zemlak got a good job, married and had children, but as she was building a successful life for herself, she always wondered what happened to her brother.

“I started to look for him down on East Hastings [in Vancouver] but I never found him,” Zemlak said. “I could have walked by him and I would have never known who he was.”

Then, one day in the summer, Zemlak got a text message that changed her life.

A friend forwarded her a news article about Petrie’s connection to Ukrainian Holy Cross Catholic Church, which prompted her to make a solo road trip from her home in Prince George to Petrie’s shed in Surrey.

When she arrived, they exchanged hellos, and like any brother and sister who love each other, the words that followed came easily.

Holy Cross Ukrainian Catholic Parish president Bruce Hitchen is still looking for permanent housing for Petrie. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

“It was like we had never been apart, when we were talking,” Zemlak said. “It wasn’t uncomfortable.”

New beginnings

An outreach worker found Petrie a hotel room the province is leasing for social housing purposes during the pandemic.

It’s not a permanent solution, but Petrie gets two meals a day, a shower and doesn’t have to worry about anyone stealing his belongings.

When Zemlak returned to visit for a second time, she filled Petrie’s cupboards with groceries and celebrated his 51st birthday by feeding him as much ice cream as he could eat — which was a lot.

“It was just awesome and I felt proud,” Petrie said. “I was walking up to people I don’t give a [care] about and was like, ‘Hey! This is my sister!'”

As hard as it was for Zemlak to see the toll years of living on the street had taken on her brother, she admired that he never lost the attributes she admires most about him, including his compassion.

“He was out there feeding the raccoons, and then he’d get mad at the crows because they were eating the food,” she said. “He’s buying food for animals when he can’t buy food for himself.”

Petrie in the churchyard shed where he was living during the summer. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Next steps

Hitchen and Zemlak speak often, discussing permanent housing solutions and what other support is available for Petrie, who still does jobs around the church.

The rekindled brother-sister relationship is complicated by distance and circumstance, but Petrie and Zemlak are committed to staying in touch.

“I will always be in his corner and I will always be on the other end of the phone,” she said. “He’s my brother.”

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