Dr. Gordon Okawara is with Fr. Jeff Oehring, pastor of St. Ann's Catholic Church in Hamilton. Okawara has been the pariah's long-time organist. Sheila Nonato

A symphony of music, medicine and faith

By  Sheila Nonato, Catholic Register Special
  • May 31, 2024

At 70 years of age, Dr. Gordon Okawara says he has much to be grateful for, from his decades-long volunteer music ministry at his parish, to his medical practice as a longtime oncologist at the Juravinski Cancer Centre, formerly the Hamilton Regional Cancer Centre.

But perhaps what he is most grateful for are the lessons passed down to him through the generations in his family, who lived through the tumultuous times of the Second World War where they saw first hand one of the darkest periods of Canadian history — the internment of Japanese-Canadians on Canada’s Pacific coast.

Despite enduring the hardships of the period, Okawara’s parents, Cecil and Miki Okawara, and their families remained hopeful and faithful. Okawara remembers his mother and grandmother’s devotion to the Catholic faith, which was passed on to him, an only child.

“(My parents) went through a very difficult time during the war and the internment,” said Okawara.“They basically lost everything. But they started from scratch, and we had a good life, and I will always be grateful for everything that they’ve given to me.” 

Despite what she endured for her birthright, the Okawaras carried on in Canada, moving from B.C. to Toronto where Cecil and Miki would meet before moving to Hamilton when Cecil got a job there. 

Miki, taught him three lessons that he carried throughout his life. Firstly, “She said, always give thanks for whatever you have to God. That was to always be grateful for what you have,” Okawara recalled.

Secondly, “She said never brag or boast because there’s always someone better than you … be humble.”

Thirdly, “whenever you do anything, do it properly. Even tying your own shoe laces,” he said.

And grateful he is. The time and dedication that Okawara has so generously invested into his music ministry and his hospital work, he said, is rooted in what he learned from his parents.

Okawara has been an organist for nearly 50 years at St. Ann’s Catholic Church, located on Barton Street in Steeltown’s east end. The gift of gratitude is what Okawara feels for St. Ann’s, a parish that once was the spiritual home to factory and hospital shift workers, and first welcomed multicultural communities who settled in Hamilton during the city’s early years.

Okawara is also grateful for being able to contribute to the parish’s liturgical life as its organist, beginning with the late Msgr. Charles McColgan who served 48 years as pastor, and now with current pastor Fr. Jeff Oehring, who announced the parish’s recent upgrade to a new and handsome organ during the parish’s year-long celebration of the church building’s 100th anniversary. It was a recommendation letter from mentor and friend McColgan that helped Okawara gain acceptance into the prestigious University of Toronto medical school.

Years after getting hired at Juravinski, Okawara said he is honoured to have been asked by McColgan to be his doctor when McColgan was referred to Juravinski for lung cancer treatment. 

“I was with (McColgan) on his last night … He went very peacefully,” he said. 

Okawara said he was also honoured to play the organ at McColgan’s funeral Mass at St. Ann’s.

“I love playing the organ and hopefully I’m offering a good service to the church by playing there,” he said. 

On the next chapter in his life, Okawara said he looks forward to — and remains remains grateful — to be able to continue working with colleagues who are like family, and helping and meeting patients who share their treasured life stories with him.

As for his time as the parish organist, like his devotion to his vocation as a doctor, Okawara says the music will play on.

“I think (faith) means everything to me,” he said. “I have a very good circle of friends and relatives, but the Church is always there, and it’s not only in Hamilton. When I go somewhere (like) Vancouver or even when I did visit Japan a couple of times … just having a Catholic church there that you could go to Mass just stresses the universality of the Church, and the fact that the Church is always there for you.”

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