Jill Forester poses with her Survivor t-shirt at last year’s Relay for Life fundraising event. Photo courtesy of Jill Forester

High school chaplain fights cancer with faith

By  Danielle Sequiera, Youth Speak News
  • March 20, 2015

TORONTO - Fifteen hundred students at St. John Paul II Catholic Secondary School cheered excitedly during a 2013 assembly to welcome students back to school after a long summer vacation.

Everyone was having a great time. No one seemed to notice above the bustle and buzz that Jill Forester stood smiling at the far end of the gym watching them. She was thrilled that she would once again be a part of their lives, this time as the school chaplain.

In a way, this welcoming assembly meant more to her than her students. For five years, the students knew her as an educational assistant and child/youth worker who worked with the special needs students. Coming back to school as the new chaplain marked a new stage in her life.

But she was coming back for more than a new position. She was coming back with a new lease on life.

Forester surprised the students at the pep rally by sharing with them her own struggles as a cancer survivor. As the students listened, they were motivated by Forester’s words and her honesty.

It’s almost impossible to imagine that a short three years ago she was in a hospital bed in the fight for her life. In June 2012, doctors discovered Forester had cancer. She was scared at first but soon learned to see the cancer as a blessing.

“My faith, if anything, eased my battle because I knew that no matter the outcome, with God’s love and strength, I would be okay,” she said. “I also knew that I would be exactly where I was meant to be. The greatest part of our faith and our relationship with God is that it is unconditional.”

The faith component of her life wasn’t always there though.

Forester grew up in a Catholic family with her brother and two parents who loved and supported her. As a child, Forester actively turned to her faith. She attended church regularly, prayed the rosary often and attended a Catholic school where she was honoured to receive the sacraments. But like many a teenager, Forester would stop going to church, though she says she never stopped believing in God.

“I didn’t become a reckless teen. I just stopped paying attention to my faith and its development,” she said.

As she got older Forester, like so many, seemed to question her faith and only turned to God in times of need. Little did she know that it was her faith which would help her survive what was to be a very emotional life journey.

After being told about her cancer, Forester spent more of her time in prayer, both on her own and with her loved ones. In a way, it was her cancer that allowed her to reconnect with her faith.

Forester depended not only on faith but on those she loves to help her through a very difficult time. Her family and friends ensured they were present for every blood test or appointment, and never allowed her to be alone. After four months of chemotherapy, radiation and more tests, the doctors pronounced Forester cancer-free.

Forester believes her cancer experience transformed her. Despite learning that going into remission is not the same as being cured of cancer, her faith grew stronger on the journey. She experienced the love of family and friends, which brought her courage and strength. She now knows a little faith and a lot of love make all the difference.
Now in her second full year as school chaplain, Forester is an important part of St. John Paul II’s school community, impacting daily on the lives of students and teachers.

As chaplain, the 36-year-old plays a key role in leading the religious direction of the high school through morning prayers, school-wide Masses and liturgies, as well as retreats every year. She also serves as a mentor to the school community by working with students who come to her with problems like arguments with their parents or cyber bullying.

“We really see each other as one big family,” said Forester. “I have found the students to be very supportive, not only of me, but of each other, constantly pushing each other to do better as students and as people.”

(Sequeira, 17, is a Grade 11 student at Blessed Pope John Paul II Secondary School in Toronto.)

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