Janet Somerville, 80, admits to fearing some of the effects of memory loss, but is sure her faith will endure and her Toronto parish, Our Lady of Lourdes, will be there for her. Photo by Michael Swan

‘Forgetting God is unthinkable’

  • May 1, 2019

Janet Somerville is afraid she might set her apartment on fire. She might forget a candle, or a kettle, or a pot on the stove. It happened once recently — a candle on the bookcase burning down until the flame spread to the bookcase itself. She made a panicked 911 call, then doused the flames well before the fire engines roared into the courtyard. But she gave herself a fright.

Somerville, prominent Catholic speaker and writer and a recipient of the Order of Canada, is among more than half a million Canadians with dementia, though she’s at a very early stage. 

Progressive memory loss brings with it fears — forgetting what day of the week it is, missing appointments, getting lost. She knows that reading is getting more difficult and slower. She knows she may forget the words of prayers she has recited over the decades, but that doesn’t bother her.

“Words are ambiguous anyway,” she said.

But she has no fear that she will ever forget God.

“The fact of God and the fact that God loves the whole creation, and also loves me, is so much the centre of my hope for life that God forgetting me or me forgetting God is unthinkable,” she said during an interview in her modest, one-bedroom apartment in a Toronto housing co-operative. She lives an easy walk from Our Lady of Lourdes, the parish she has attended most of her life.

Somerville grew up sure of herself and her faith. She was the daughter of the immensely respected Catholic Register editor Henry Somerville. She was one of the first lay women to study theology at St. Michael’s College. She was part of the international, ecumenical lay community of women known as The Grail. She was a producer on the CBC’s highbrow and often seriously religious radio program Ideas. She was one of the founders and pioneering editors of The Catholic New Times. She was the first woman and the first Catholic ever to hold the position of general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches. 

Her lifetime of work and service earned her the Order of Canada in 2004.

But now, at 80, she can’t be quite so sure of herself. In March her geriatrician sent her to St. Michael’s Hospital for an interview with researchers who are experimenting with a new dementia drug. After a lot of talk about ethical principles guiding the research, her rights as a patient and a very thorough test of her memory, the doctors rejected Somerville as a subject for their drug trials. 

“Unfortunately, my memory works so well that they didn’t let me into the test,” she said, and then laughed.

Somerville saw her mother Margaret endure, with grace, the decline she herself now faces. In the last few years of her life, Margaret could not remember the names of her grandchildren, or even that she had grandchildren. When Janet’s sister would show up with the six children, it was always a surprise to their grandmother.

“My mother would say, ‘Who are these lovely children?’ and Moira (van Nooten) would say, ‘They’re your grandchildren, Mum.’ And she said, ‘Oh, isn’t it wonderful to have such beautiful grandchildren.’ But the next time, she would still not know who they were,” Somerville said. “But her welcome of them was cloudless.”

A lot of Somerville’s life now revolves around Our Lady of Lourdes. She’s there at the 11:30 Mass on Sunday mornings. She attends parish missions during Advent and Lent. When the parish’s large Filipino population puts on festas, she comes and drinks a glass of punch while watching the younger people from the edge of the crowd. 

As a woman who never married, who lived her entire life swimming the currents of debate in the Church, her parish is her sure anchor and her second home. 

During the three-day Lenten mission at Lourdes this year, Somerville found herself being hugged by fellow parishioners as everyone was buttoning their coats and getting ready to go out into the dark, cold and wet early spring evening.

“I had no idea who they were,” she said. “The general atmosphere, especially at something like the mission — which only pretty convinced parishioners come to — the atmosphere is so warm that even if I haven’t got a clue who the person is, being hugged (at Our Lady of Lourdes) seems quite normal.”

While Somerville is sure her parish will be there for her, with or without her memory, it doesn’t mean her parish has really thought about it.

“I think Lourdes is spiritually and psychologically ready (for parishioners with dementia). I don’t know if it has strategies prepared,” she said. 

Lourdes Jesuit pastor Fr. John Sullivan confirms Somerville’s guess about the parish’s state of readiness.

“We haven’t ever thought about the issue of dementia and how to assist those with it,” he said in an e-mail.

The parish does have plans to upgrade its signage to help people navigate the maze of meeting rooms and halls in the old church. The parish also has an enormous cadre of welcomers working the door at every Mass who help many elderly parishioners, L’Arche community members and others to feel comfortable and to find a seat.

What Somerville would like her parish to do is find someone to phone her on Saturday evening, to remind her of Sunday Mass. “Because which day of the week it is is one of the first things to go,” she said.

If she could ask for more than the helpful Saturday reminder call, it would be for a volunteer to swing by on Sunday morning and walk with her to the Church — “a friendly shoulder.” Then if this service could be expanded to a phone call every day, Somerville says that would be perfect.

Somerville also hopes that even as her memory coughs and sputters, she might continue to serve her Church.

“The only thing I could think of would be a special prayer group that could be brought together, maybe once a week, to pray for things in the parish that were coming up, or that were of concern or worries,” she said. “I sure hope I will still be able to pray.”

She has experimented with wordless, centring prayer, but thinks perhaps it is a little late to transform herself into a contemplative. Whatever form of prayer is available to her, she would be glad to offer it on behalf of the people in her parish. “One of the things you have to face when you hit my age and later is you can’t rejoice in being useful anymore,” she said.

But outside of setting fire to her apartment, Janet Somerville, C.M., M.A., D.D. and Our Lady of Lourdes parishioner, is pretty much fearless.

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Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible, which has become acutely important amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. But we need your help.

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