That nice new priest Teresa Camilleri met at Archbishop Francis Leo’s installation Mass? It just happened to be the man of the hour himself. Michael Swan

The story behind the photo

  • April 19, 2023

Teresa Camilleri was exactly where she always is for noon Masses on Sundays at St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica when she met a nice young priest in a purple cassock. But this wasn’t Sunday and priests don’t wear purple cassocks.

Camilleri had snagged a ticket to the March 25 installation of Archbishop Francis Leo. Turns out the nice young priest she had just met was about to be installed as Archbishop of Toronto.

Before the phalanx of bishops were all in place and the formal installation could begin, Leo walked around the sanctuary of his new home greeting as many people as he could. He had just finished checking in with members of his family in the front row, then a few old friends in the second row, when he decided to continue on and shake hands with Camilleri in her wheelchair, tucked into the space between the second and third rows.

“I said, ‘My name is Teresa. And I’m sorry, who are you?’ He was like, ‘Oh, I’m the new archbishop,’ ” Camilleri told The Catholic Register. “I’m sure I turned the colour of his garment. I said, ‘Oh, wow.’ I was just like, ‘Wow.’ ”

It was a moment no photographer could resist. I had a 14-to-24 millimetre zoom lens mounted on my old Nikon D600. At f2.8 and 1/80th of a second (really too slow, but the light away from the altar isn’t great) and ISO1600, I circled around, got down low and managed a short sequence of four or five frames.

"I said, ‘My name is Teresa. And I’m sorry, who are you?’ He was like, ‘Oh, I’m the new archbishop.’"

“I was aware of you,” Camilleri said. “There was this guy with this big, huge camera. This was not a little phone-digital thing. This was a professional dude.”

For Leo, meeting Camilleri was exactly the sort of encounter he had been hoping for.

“It was a true joy to meet Teresa,” Leo later told The Catholic Register in an email.

He described Camilleri as “a faithful and devoted member of our Church family.” In that sense, Camilleri was not unique among the 1,600 invited guests present for Leo’s installation.

“I was overjoyed at the immense kindness and closeness shown to me on that special day,” Leo said. “It was very touching and encouraging to be welcomed with such open arms and open hearts.”

Camilleri told Leo to expect more of the same.

“I said something to the effect of, ‘Don’t worry. I’m here every week at the 12 o’clock Mass. I’m sure I will be seeing you.’”

A ticket to the archbishop’s installation was not necessarily an easy catch. With 62 bishops and two cardinals, well over 100 priests, to say nothing of dignitaries from all levels of government and various other friends of the archdiocese who all needed to be accommodated, there just weren’t that many tickets to go around. The ace up Camilleri’s sleeve was that St. Michael’s Rector Fr. Frank Portelli is Maltese — just like her (she was actually born in Vancouver and grew up in Mississauga, but Maltese families stay Maltese).

When Camilleri asked Portelli about a ticket the initial answer was no, simply because Portelli wasn’t involved in the ticketing process. But then it occurred to Portelli that Camilleri’s wheelchair was actually an advantage in this situation. Nobody would have to give up a seat to accommodate Camilleri. She brings her own chair.

Portelli swore Camilleri to secrecy before her picture was splashed across the pages of The Catholic Register.

In the rest of her life, there’s no pretending that Camilleri’s wheelchair is an advantage. At 62, she’s been wheelchair bound for three-and-a-half years.

“It’s not easy,” she said. “I had a house. I had a car. I had a job. Now I have none of that because I couldn’t do stairs. I had to sell my house.”

Like many little people with achondroplasia, the same form of dwarfism that actor Peter Dinklage has, Camilleri has had surgeries at various times. The last one, in late 2019, didn’t turn out as well as Camilleri had hoped. Since then, she’s been tied to the schedules of personal support workers (PSWs) who help her get from her bed and into her wheelchair, among other vital tasks.

Despite the hardships, Camilleri comes downtown to St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica from her home in North York every Sunday.

“I love going to church,” she said.

While there’s a perfectly good parish church in her neighbourhood, Camilleri is drawn to St. Michael’s.

“The cathedral has the choir. The cathedral has the incense — the whole pomp, that whole thing. I love it. I love going there,” she said.

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