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Vol 38  No 15
June 8, 2006


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Oration honouring Sister Kathrine Bellamy

Dr. Kathrine Bellamy (L) and president Dr. Axel Meisen

If all art aspires to the condition of music, then pity the poor university orator who has only words, not the sonorous harmonies of angelic music, to sing the praises of one of the most significant and influential women in the history of music-making in Newfoundland and Labrador.

How can mere words do justice to Sister Kathrine Bellamy, whose legacy lives in the hearts, minds and voices of generations of students, and in the national and international accolades her own choirs have received, and those choirs directed by her former students? Sister Bellamy, her students and her music, give a permanent voice to our aspirations and our identity.

A recent newspaper editorial noted the seemingly inexplicable way the choirs in this province continue to carry off national and international prizes, remarking that, “It must be something in the water.”

We know from our history that it takes people of wisdom, initiative and courage to develop the natural resources of our province. It is not the water, but the building of educational institutions devoted to excellence and the teaching of our young people by women and men of vision, creativity and commitment that gives us world-wide recognition.

In the history of the church, and in the history of music, there has been a long tradition of spirited and spiritual, female musicians and scholars ­ Sister Egeria of Spain, St. Cecilia of Rome, Hildegard of Bingen and Lukardis of Utrecht ­ and there has been a long tradition of such women being repressed, silenced, cloistered and even beheaded for daring to take a leading role in public and professional life.

No such fate befell this questioning and independent-minded nun who stands before you. Quite the contrary. In joining the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, Sister Bellamy found fulfillment for her vocation to make the “best possible use of her life.” Today you will find her chatting with the media on Channel 9 and sitting at a table in Costco signing copies of her recent scholarly and substantial publication, Weavers of the Tapestry, the story of ordinary women doing extraordinary things. Her faith and her music are still the central forces in her life, though now she composes music on her computer and via e-mail spreads the gospel, according to the Catholic activist, Sister Joan Chittister.

From her early days in a loving, non-sectarian family in Bay Roberts, through her music teaching and choral directing in the Catholic school system, through her university studies in the lieder of Robert Schumann and the choral works of Johannes Brahms, in her work as organist and choral leader at the Basilica of St. John the Baptist, Sister Bellamy has been a happy pilgrim of the mind and spirit because she created “something beautiful where there had been nothing.”

It is fitting, Mr. Vice-Chancellor, that she is one of the community of graduates today because she has always been the very model of a modern music teacher. Always praising, never punishing, always challenging, never criticizing, Sister Bellamy conveyed her passion and joy in the creative spirit in all of us that transcends the self. She taught students as young as seven to sing effortlessly madrigals, chorales, Gregorian chants and classical requiems and along the way they won coveted trophies, locally and nationally. And she did it all her way, the way of kindness and love. Her choirs were open to all-comers, her classes open to rich and poor, those with talent and those without. For she knew, as her favourite poet, Shelley, knew:

Are we not formed as notes of music are
For one another, though dissimilar.

Her love for all humanity was not confined to her choral work. She has been a tireless advocate of the dignity of the homeless, the poor, the physically and mentally frail. She initiated a multi-faith committee that crossed denominational boundaries to spearhead the distribution of food and clothes to the less fortunate in the City of St. John’s.

Has this woman no sins, no faults? Like the author of the Da Vinci Code, I have conducted extensive, inquisitorial interviews, made clandestine telephone calls, received secret, coded documents and I can only discover one minor misdemeanour. Sister Kathrine was found passed out, dead drunk and incoherent ­ when she was four years old. In her innocence, she had mistaken her mother’s potent blueberry wine for cordial. I have it on the best authority that since that fateful day, her consumption of communion wine has been excessively moderate. So, Mr. Vice-Chancellor, with impunity and in the spirit of ecumenicism, I beg to appropriate the words of the Anglican hymn, Immortal, Invisible to present to you this Catholic nun, Sister Kathrine Bellamy, who would prefer to be invisible, but who is now immortalized for the rich legacy of music and love she has given this province. She has been a “fountain of goodness and love,” having lived the “true life of all” and given joy to all “great and small.” Her “angels,” Kathrine’s Girls, have adored her. It only remains for you in the “splendour of light” to pronounce her most “blessed and glorious” and accord her the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa.

Dr. Annette Staveley
Deputy public orator

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