Celebrating the extraordinary life of Alice Heap

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There are those who struggle for a day and they are good.
There are those who struggle for a year and they are better.
There are those who struggle many years, and they are better still.
But there are those who struggle all their lives: These are the
indispensable ones.

-Bertolt Brecht

It was a funeral for the ages, a warm two-hour bath of memory and hope. It was also a snapshot of a world gone by.

Alice Heap -- "wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, Christian, pacifist, socialist, feminist, community activist and organizer extraordinaire" was feted and sent on her way to glory in a Mass of Resurrection at the boiler room of incarnated Christianity, Holy Trinity Anglican Church.

You knew you were in the right place when you saw John Sewell, Olivia Chow and so many veterans of peace and justice struggles in our city.

Nestled in the bosom of the Temple of Consumerism, the Eaton Centre, Holy Trinity has been the pulse of relevant Christianity for as long as I can remember and Alice Heap was one of the great dynamos who worshipped within her sacred precincts. She did it all with maximum effectiveness and little fanfare.

Wife and confidant to her "inseparable partner in faith and social justice causes," former NDP member of Spadina, Don Heap, Alice was 86.

Born in 1925 in Saint-Paul-d'Abbotsford, Quebec, southeast of Montreal, the daughter of a United Church minister, Alice Boomhour converted to Anglicanism during the Second World War. It was at McGill that she met her future husband, Dan, then studying theology and on his way to become an Anglican priest. Dan was ordained in 1950, the year he and Alice married.

Both were members of the dynamic Student Christian Movement (SCM) which did so much to renovate the bourgeois Christianity which reigned in Canada in the post-war years. The SCM with its active insertion into society prefigured the similar thrust of Catholicism's Vatican II by decades.

Moving to Toronto, Dan worked in a paper factory for 18 years as a worker-priest. Alice stood tall alongside him -- while raising the first of their seven children, the Heap household with Alice the nourishing hub ultimately included seven children who were used to welcoming into their home war resisters, SCM workcamps, farm workers and social justice activists of all stripes. Their penultimate home, a rambling house in the Kensington Market area of Toronto, was notorious as an NDP hot house and a crash pad for justice seekers. The door at 29 Wales was never locked.

The funeral, with numerous tributes, made everyone aware of the extraordinary life this no-nonsense, humble woman had led. It was breathtaking to realize how a woman with seven children could be simultaneously engaged in so many areas of kingdom work -- from housing, to anti-war work, refugees, etc., all the while offering radical hospitality and speaking truth to power. Even at a young age in her early SCM days, as old friend Bruce Mutch stated, she was not shy "in calling to account." Simply listening to the five eulogists, I realized the appropriateness of the following justice "hymn":

Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing. It sounds an echo in my soul, how can I keep from singing?

This was no morose funeral. It was a bold statement of Christian conviction, a defiant challenge to all of us, to pick up the cross and carry on. And irony of ironies, we would all be back in this place six days later to celebrate the Ecumenical Stations of the Cross. The gospel reading was obvious: Matthew 25:34-40 25 -- whatsoever you do unto the least... Of course it was preceded by verses from the Internationale (Billy Bragg translation). It all cohered.

Stand up, all victims of oppression
For the tyrants fear your might
Don't cling so hard to your possessions
For you have nothing, if you have no rights
Let racist ignorance be ended
For respect makes the empires fall
Freedom is merely privilege extended
Unless enjoyed by one and all

And what would a funeral of such a strong woman be without a few choruses of Bread and Roses?

A beautiful sacramental touch in this historic Henry Bower Lane Toronto landmark was the bread and wine shared and also the ashes we were all invited to add to Alice's interment.

Alice was always future bound; as Jurgen Moltmann reminds us, "Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving." Forty years earlier she was active in the co-op movement at the top of our street with my wife Joan, and 40 years later, she and Dan were embracing my own daughter Susannah as president of the Student Christian Movement for Canada.

This celebration should have been taped and sent by video to every Catholic parish to show just what we are losing as the Church retreats into its own smug, inward-looking circle, virtually disengaged from our common struggles. The "Church of the little flock" looks paltry, timorous, boring and ineffectual substituting charity for the clarion call to live out the Kingdom as a true leaven in society.

Alice Heap lived out of the messianic vision of Jesus. She was a profound gift to the Church and our city. She was also a challenge to our own middle-class Christianity, hobbled as it is by the sweet seduction and cheap toys which often subvert our best intentions. To many of us -- and we can only see this in the glow of such life in retrospect -- Alice brought to life the Little Poor Man of Assisi's advice: Pray often -- use words if you have to.

Her life was the Gospel, the Word for today, an incarnated Message and as Michael Creal said in one of the eulogies. "If Anglicans had the machinery for canonization, Alice would have qualified." And as he also noted, she would have dismissed the notion out of hand.

Did you ever leave a funeral dancing down the street? I did on March 31, 2012.

Ted Schmidt is the former editor of Catholic New Times and the author of Journeys to the Heart of Catholicism.

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