By Luke Stocking, Director of Public Engagement
“Dear Friends of Janet….” Thus would begin emails updating myself and others on the news of Janet Somerville’s declining health. She passed away on April 16, 2023, at the age of 84. There are few lay Catholic women like her in the history of the Church in Canada. We at Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada honour her contributions to Canada, to the Church, and indeed to the whole world through her commitment to our mission of international solidarity. She was an extraordinary member of our organization.
In 1967, the year Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada was born, Janet was producing that year’s CBC Massey Lectures, entitled, “Conscience for Change.” The speaker was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
She was a woman of many accolades: founding producer of the CBC show Ideas; first Roman Catholic woman to earn a graduate degree in theology from the Faculty of Theology of the University of St. Michael’s College; first Catholic and first woman to serve as general secretary to the Canadian Council of Churches; recipient of the Order of Canada; the list goes on and on. Many wonderful tributes to Janet have been shared in the media, including the CBC and the Catholic Register.
Perhaps chief among her accolades, though, was her commitment to caring for those she loved. She famously declined to join King as a speechwriter following the Massey Lectures, because she was her mother’s primary caregiver. She was a pillar of the community of her parish, Our Lady of Lourdes in Toronto, which was a short walk from her home.
Bernadette Whalen, who knew her for over 40 years, said, “Janet is one of the most giving, kindest, compassionate people I have ever met. She took care of everyone, and because of her giving heart, she couldn’t say no. She helped more people than she ever knew. She followed what God tells us to do.”
We at Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada honour Janet especially for her commitment to international solidarity, which she expressed, among other ways, as a member of our organization. She was not only an individual member and financial contributor. Janet was a founding member of our parish group at Our Lady of Lourdes, along with Sr. Hazel Campayne. Wendy McCreath, the current leader of the group of which Janet remained a faithful member right up to the end of her life, shares the following reflection.
“She always contributed her honest, incisive thoughts to discussions. She relished the opportunity to write letters, such as one she wrote to protest the cutbacks of funds to DPCC. She loved to edit messages to the congregation that would be delivered during Solidarity Sunday, and though the pastor said we could have no more than two minutes, Janet often talked for up to five. I would shrug my shoulders and say, ‘That’s Janet!’
“When we conducted the Seeds campaign, Janet, Michael Arbour and I went to talk to MP Chrystia Freeland about our concerns for the viability of our agricultural sector. Freeland had responded that she was on our wavelength because she had grown up on a farm in Alberta. Janet was persuasive and passionate about our cause, but gracious all the same.
“As the pandemic waned and we restarted in-person meetings, Janet came to a couple. But it was evident that her faculties were not there, and she stopped coming altogether. It was then that members of our group began to visit her at home and tried to ease her life in its waning days.”
Janet touched so many people in our organization’s community, even those whom she did not know personally. Former national council member Sylvia Skrepichuk wrote, “She was a brilliant, accomplished, woman who was inspired by and took seriously the call of Vatican II to empower the laity. As a lay woman in the Catholic Church, I am inspired by her leadership and her commitment to justice, faith and ecumenism. She has left an enduring legacy.”
An enduring legacy indeed. As your friends, we say, “Janet Somerville, ¡Presente!”
Janet’s family has invited people to make donations to Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada in her honour.