In Memoriam: The Rev. Canon Dr. Graham Cotter

by Suzanne Lawson ODT

How can one possibly write a concise tribute to The Rev. Canon Dr. Graham Cotter for a newsletter? He was so eccentric, so much a polymath, so creative, so unstoppable, so impish, so very Graham!  But that is the task at hand. A tribute, then, as concise as Graham rarely was!

Graham and I (and my late husband, Art, and our kids) used to love to say, with a glint of delight in our eyes, that “Graham and I once lived together!” This would lead to a quick raising of eyebrows and then a loud burst of laughter from Graham’s late wife, Evelyn, with whom I also lived! Their Cabbagetown home was where it all happened, during the last five or six years they lived there. I was privileged to be one, and the last one, of a long list of those who were “taken in” to live with them when I was somewhat homeless and Art was in a retirement home. And it is on that very personal level that these remarks come from about this amazing man.

Credentials first: Born in Jamaica to a Jamaican estate manager/archeologist and a Canadian visual artist, Graham was a mixture of Caribbean energy and joy, English tradition and tweed, and Canadian freedom and maple syrup.  He was sent from home to Canada to study at St. Andrew’s College for his high school years and then found his way to Trinity College, a home of learning he revered and served all his life. First came the Bachelor’s degree, then the Masters and finally a PhD focusing on Robert Browning. Headed towards academia, he began a teaching career, met the wonderful woman named Evelyn Maguire, who was also headed towards an academic life and they decided to marry.

This marriage of two strong and stubborn folk created a family and a following unlike any other I have known, and then went about to create children — Christopher who became Sean, Norah who became Charis, and Cathy who became Cate — and topped it off by adopting a son, Simon Bartholomew, named after the two saints who were hallowed in the two churches in which Graham had served up to that time. The home and family broadened to include many delightful foster children and others, like me, who simply needed a home for a while. And later, grandchildren (and children and grandchildren of the fostered family too) offered laughter and joy and annual trips to Stratford, and, for Graham, even more people to tell stories to.

Always deeply a Christian, Graham’s call to priestly ministry brought him back to Trinity as a student, and ordination as a priest in 1958 brought him under the care of the Diocese of Toronto, his ecclesial home for the rest of his very long life.  Trinity College found a way into his heart, because he really never left.  He loved every meeting of the Corporation he was at, but especially the chats afterwards with his colleagues and ever-expanding list of friends.  He, and Evelyn, whenever she could, attended the Friday Morning Family Eucharists with the famous buns and bacon breakfasts that followed…a chance to meet the new theologues and build them into his friendship circle. (That’s where the Lawson family with our two public school-age kids met up with the Cotters for the first time.) He donated generously to Trinity causes and campaigns, spoke highly of its academic status, and prayed for its Divinity Faculty and students passionately, but especially at times of troubles.

His work at the Diocese of Toronto first took him to a staff position focused on what was then called social service…we would call it social justice and outreach now. It may be apocryphal, but I seem to remember that he also staffed a committee initially called “Marriage and Related Affairs,” which got the loud bursts of laughter going again from Evelyn – and far too many others too.  Its name was changed quickly to something a bit more palatable, but the marriage preparation and enrichment courses that came from that group of people shepherded by Graham were pioneering at the time. He also had a strong hand in helping to establish the Distress Centre in Toronto.

Parish ministry in the Diocese brought Graham to what became his beloved St. Mark’s in Parkdale (now called Church of the Epiphany and St. Mark) where he served as rector for 18 years. He found a home there in his heart and made the church a faith-full community for many in the Parkdale area who really needed the kind of caring atmosphere he helped to create.  His “disciples” have taken strong roles in the Diocese ever since, some ordained, others in a lay leadership role. Other parishes have also benefitted from his ministry: he was Associate Priest at St. Cuthbert’s in Leaside, helped out occasionally at St. Bart’s and Holy Trinity, and was an Interim Rector and then Honorary Assistant at St. Mark’s in Port Hope, the lovely church that became his parish home for many years. He lately was known to speak of his recent role in St. Mark’s as “more honouring than assisting”.

Along the way, Graham became fascinated in studying and writing about the links between science and theology. Never one to buy the “either/or” way that people created by putting a clear barrier between the two, Graham studied and wrote about and talked about just how closely God could be found working away in the science that undergirds life, and how the best of science reflects the mystery of faith.  He probably had a better collection of books and articles on this topic than most theological libraries. And this was only one way the academic in Graham met the mystic in Graham.

For all the time as a priest, and probably before, Graham was a strong advocate for inclusion, keeping a watchful eye on the needs of immigrants and people who were poorer than his own family. He and Evelyn bought their home in Cabbagetown to live in solidarity among the poor, although they, over time, became the poor living among the rich as that neighbourhood gentrified.  His voice was strong in committees and boards, especially in church Synods, supporting women as they slowly moved towards ordination possibilities, and gays and lesbians whom he so wanted to be fully accepted by the church. I know it was a real surprise to him, well after his retirement, to be named a Canon by Archbishop Terry Finlay, a late recognition of how much that strong voice for justice had been valued.

The Essential Graham Cotter. Credentials and facts do not, however, tell the full tale of this man.  The qualities that drew so many to him were multiple and the list that follows will catch only a few:

Graham was a man of insatiable curiosity. He wanted to know about how things worked, why people thought certain things, how a hose could be fixed, how a labyrinth could be built in a lawn, how long a plant could manage without water, what kenosis really meant, who was replacing the Rev. So-and-So in that church down the way…there was not much that didn’t attract his attention and create conversation.

He loved liturgy. He liked experimenting, he was bored with “same old, same old” and sparkled things up with sermons about donkeys, plays that he wrote about various Bible stories and then directed so people could actually SEE the story. He was an Anglo-Catholic in good Trinity tradition but had his own quite wonderful way of making that often an adventure, but always an adventure that enhanced the liturgy. Who will ever forget his teaching of the dance that he learned at St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco? Who will ever forget the stately choreographed dance by several St. Mark’s elderly angels in St. Mark’s labyrinth’s back lawn?

He loved to laugh. There was a Cotter chuckle that someone should have recorded.  In many ways, that lovely sound spoke of his joy in life as it emerged day by day. And then, there was the out-of-control belly laugh too…which I remember so well erupting from the TV room upstairs as he and Evelyn watched “As Time Goes By” for the fifth time, anticipating the next line that was to come from dear Lionel. And that kind of laughter almost always ended up with wheezes to catch his breath.

He loved words. He wrote…and wrote…and wrote.  Books galore, some on meaty theological topics, some of poetry, some with stories for children, some about his life as a child.  Writing for the public began with a popular Toronto Star column he was part of called Youth Clinic where young people could write in and get help with their problems. It never stopped.  Many books or starts of books are yet unpublished, and he was writing until about a week before his death.  And then there was the weekly email, sent to hundreds around the world. We knew what was important to Graham through his writing.  Some of us even began to think like him!

He loved second hand everything! Clothes were from Value Village, and top brands they were too.  Mirrors or parts of mirrors were from Cabbagetown garbage day early morning walks.  Simon has been known to say that even several of his children and foster children were “previously owned”. Graham and Evelyn too were past masters at finding bargains, and taught many of their friends and family to be on the lookout wherever possible.

Graham loved cultivating relationships, both for himself and between others. When he met someone, he always was eager to find connections they might have had with other friends or the Cotter family members. And then, like the farmer he also was, he began to help those relationships grow by linking one person with another, then another. The truth of it was that Graham loved people, loved all of God’s people. We all knew this to be true within a couple of minutes of spending time with him.

He loved the arts.  He designed liturgical robes and designed sets for his plays. He made friends with artists (Vaclav Vaca, for instance, and Alexandra Caverly-Lowry, a ballerina and liturgical dancer whose glorious movements in dance gave him courage to try his own). It was no fluke that he was awarded the Anglican Church of Canada’s “Companion of the Worship Arts” medal in 2014.

Graham and Evelyn were generous.  They gave way beyond their means to support their parish church, and to establish philanthropic efforts at the Anglican Foundation of Canada (he founded the Sacred Arts Trust) and Innis College too.  It might be that a certain political party also benefitted from their commitment. But it was their generosity that landed me in their home for so many years…just come, no rent. What a wonder!

But, above all, Graham loved his family.  Evelyn, his soulmate and chief leader of the loyal opposition on many hotly debated social issues and family issues too, was the person who was his solid ground for all he did and all he was. They loved each other and their kids so much. And, after Evelyn died, Graham, was lost. That is, until he found another charming woman who could meet him on even terms in every topic of discussion. Falling head over heels in love with Margaret Baily gave Graham joy and he cared deeply for her and her family too.

Graham Cotter, priest, lover, husband, father, grandfather, foster father, friend, Trinity alumnus and supporter, prophet, writer, creative artist and clearly God’s wonderful creation…he will be missed, but long remembered.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Graham Cotter  1925-2024


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