In October 2017, I was humbled and privileged to receive the Order of Mary Ward from my high school, Loretto Abbey in Toronto, Ontario. It is the highest award that can be given to alumnae and celebrates the values that the foundress of the Loretto Schools, Mary Ward, used to drive her vision. The award celebrates that “in time, women will come to do great things,”
Below is the speech that I gave in the great chapel at the Abbey. Thank you to all who put my name forward, to the Loretto Alumnae Association and to my friends and family. I am grateful for everything.
Words, they have the power to hurt, to heal, to captivate, to inform, to exhilarate and invigorate, to stretch our imaginations to pull us apart or draw us closer together. One encouraging word alone can make somebody’s day, place joy where it may not have been before.
One word alone on a page…peace, love, faith, devotion, has an impact – draws as on an artist’s palette a painting in the eyes of those who read it. Close your eyes for a moment, and think of the word faith, or peace. What image comes to mind?
Words and images, help us to communicate. It has been said, that love opens doors and windows that we didn’t even know were there. The same can be said of words and stories. Words can be strung into sentences that flow into paragraphs and grow into concepts and ideals that become the foundation of our culture. These stories can be shared again and again, fostering a great communion of spirit at a grand international buffet.
Mary Ward, the foundress of Loretto Abbey, was a woman who fostered such a communion that is celebrated even today in the religions and educational communities that she established. Mary Ward was a great lover of words, language and stories. It was said that when she was a toddler, she was about fall and took a bad spill, and her mother uttered, “Jesus protect my child.”
Hearing this, Mary Ward’s first word was Jesus. It was this word that guided her life, as it turns out, as we all know she was a woman who went on to do great things both for herself and other women of faith for generations afterwards.
Mary Ward’s words were visionary, full of conviction, and strong even in the face of great defiance and danger. At a time when women had very little voice, Mary used her skill with words to affirm her faith not only in God, but also in her belief that in time women would be recognized for doing great works. She set up multiple schools for Catholic girls at the height of the Reformation.
Mary loved words so much, that, when she was imprisoned as a heretic with nothing but the clothes on her back, she found a means to broadcast her message of hope, inspiration and forward thinking by writing in invisible ink using lemon juice and laundry paper.
That command of language made her a tremendous leader, helped her to break with convention and find the courage to forge pathways where none existed, to turn ears that would not listen and to inspire others to do the same. She knew how influential a well-chosen word could be, knew that how they were evoked, placed, uttered and shared could mean the difference between slavery and freedom. Mary Ward was a communicator and in her own simple and powerful words, she encouraged people to do good and to do it well.
It is those words that I take and hope that as an author, and an educator, that I too encourage people to do good and do it well, that as a kind of story whisperer, I can help them to elevate and celebrate their voices and as Mary would put in, “to act not out of fear, but only solely from love.” It is my hope that these voices will then be raised in confidence and communion to tell the stories that connect us all as humans.
At Loretto Abbey we had phenomenal teachers, and mentors, were exposed to great literature and were taught to inquire. We were encouraged to become active, compassionate and life long learners, to be principled communicators, open minded and caring risk-takers, to be balanced, reflective, articulate and empathetic.
I want to take a moment to thank our teachers: yes, they gave us lots of homework, yes they pushed us, and no, we didn’t always as young ladies appreciate it, but in reflection we sure value your wisdom now. It made its mark and it has made a difference. Teachers make a difference.
I want to thank my family, especially my parents for sending me to Loretto Abbey, for helping me to see it through, even though I may have railed against it; you were right, it was the best place to be.
Loretto Abbey was a place where we, the class of 1987 were blessed to develop deep friendships. A special thank you to Bernadine Berardi for putting my name forward for the Order of Mary Ward this year.
I want to thank the Loretto Alumnae Association, parents, aunts, uncles, teachers, friends, brothers and my sister for the honour of being here today, for the support, encouragement, joy and love you have provided along the pathway that has led to this moment. I also deeply congratulate the other, very inspirational recipients of the award today. You are all amazing women. We don’t create story alone. I am only here today because of others, because of the friends and partnerships that helped me to find my voice.
My calling, much like Mary Ward’s, is to plant seeds, seeds that, blossom and bloom, seeds that advocate for the values of faith, to bring the best out in each individual so we can be fair with one another, just, loving and respectful, so that each of us can be changemakers whether it be one on one, friend to friend or on a larger scale or stage through art and education. My calling is to share words, to evoke stories that connect us and to empower those who may lack the tools to do it alone, to build a literate community and to do so, as Mary Ward would, cheerfully.
What if a word meant nothing to you? If you saw no pictures, if you could not sound things out and string stories together?
781 million adults over the age of 15 estimated to be illiterate, 496 million were women, the World’s Women 2015 report found. Women made up more than half the illiterate population in all regions of the world.
People from poor families as well as the long-term unemployed, seniors, native people, prisoners, people with disabilities, and racial and cultural minorities all have higher rates of both illiteracy and poverty. Poverty has a direct link to illiteracy and vice versa.
It is our calling, as people who are literate, as people who have been gifted with the education and faith that Mary Ward laid out for us at Loretto Abbey to share this gift with others, to help them to be able to share their stories, their experience, to feel valued, included and empowered, to lift this poverty of expression. To help people experience the wonder of words, to be able to open a book and experience a world of different places and opinions, to have empathy for those places and opinions.
There are people out there who have dedicated their lives to bringing the joy of a words, the imagination a book can unlock to others. My journey as an author has opened this door for me as well.
Today Sonya White and Richard Clewes, founders of OneWorld Schoolhouse Foundation and the Rainforest of Reading are here. They and their daughter Marleina saw the need to help others find their voices in places where many of us go for a holiday, but where much of the population struggles with literacy. They saw that there were no books in classrooms, no books in communities, no libraries in schools or towns. They made it their goal to bring books to places in the Caribbean that are often racked by hurricanes and lose their resources, having to rebuild everything again.
OneWorld Schoolhouse Foundation educates and enlightens a small group that can go on to be changemakers. They educate and enlighten a world of children, hungry for learning and opportunity, joyful to receive the gift of words, the gift of story.
I had the pleasure of travelling to St. Lucia with them to help with their festivals of reading in 2016. It was deeply moving to see how 1000’s of children reacted to the gifts that they brought, and how deeply they had engaged with the books selected for the student driven competition. I witnessed first hand how a single, committed idea can make a positive impact. I am happy to say that if you purchase one of my books today, all of the funds will go directly to help Sonya and Richard’s initiatives. They bring words to the classrooms of future changemakers.
As we leave here today, my wish is that the words you say both out loud and to yourself are words of kindness, words of empathy and understanding, words that are not regretful, but hopeful. I hope that your words and the stories that they inevitably form into, much like Mary Ward’s, propel you to be brave in the face of adversity, faithful in times of doubt, and that those words, in time, will inspire all of us to do much, that we will use our words to open doors and windows for others that they didn’t even know were there.