A moment of grace for a former principal

Published May 1, 2005

Canon Norman Pilcher (pictured with daughter Elizabeth) received a thank-you note last year from 25 former students of Gordon Indian Residential School.

It was just one moment at General Synod 2004, just a sentence in the Anglican Journal’s thousands of words covering the nine-day governing convention. But for Canon Norman Pilcher, it was a thunderclap.

The Journal’s story referred to a presentation at the June meeting in St. Catharines, Ont., that acknowledged former teachers and staff of the two dozen Indian residential schools once managed by the Anglican Church of Canada.

Speaking from the floor, Rev. Arthur Anderson of Lumsden, Sask., who is aboriginal, said he had attended the Gordon residential school in Punnichy, Sask. “I would love a balanced story (about the schools),” he said. Then he added, “I would love to put my arms around Rev. Norman Pilcher, a gentle human individual who loved us.” In recent years, the schools have been harshly criticized for being part of a larger boarding school system, run by the federal government and several churches, that alienated and in some cases abused native children. The schools are also cited as the cause for widespread social and emotional problems in native communities.

Some former staff were later imprisoned for abuse (mainly sexual) of the children. However, many staff who were not abusive continue to see themselves as well-intentioned people working in institutions they thought were helping native children.

When Mr. Pilcher, who had served as principal of the Gordon school from 1952 to 1955, read Mr. Anderson’s words “he felt vindicated,” said his daughter, Elizabeth Doucette.

“He felt his work at the schools was made toxic by the controversy,” said Ms. Doucette, who lives in Oakville, Ont. Mr. Pilcher sent a card to Mr. Anderson, who responded with a thank-you note signed by 25 former students from Gordon’s. “Bless you. All these people remember you,” the card read. The card also carried the names of eight couples with the accompanying note “our parents.”

Mr. Pilcher, who was ordained in Quebec, served as principal of St. Alban’s Indian Residential School in Prince Albert, Sask., from 1949 to 1952, then went to the Gordon school. The latter institution became infamous in the 1990s when former administrator William Starr, who worked there from 1968 to 1984, was convicted of sexually abusing boys and went to prison.

Ms. Doucette, who is 54, was adopted by the Pilchers as a baby and remembers living at the Gordon school with her adopted brother and playing with the native children. One story her father told and later put in writing was of a complaint about a male teacher making advances to the boys. “He said to the man, ‘I want you out and I will watch you get on the train,'” said Ms. Doucette. She said she couldn’t remember the man’s name and he is not identified in Mr. Pilcher’s papers.

Although Mr. Pilcher was scheduled to testify at Mr. Starr’s trial, he was not called to the witness stand and Ms. Doucette cannot remember whether their paths crossed. Mr. Pilcher went on to a distinguished career, serving as warden of St. Chad’s Theological College in Regina in the late 1950s, then returning to parish ministry in Quebec before retiring in 1980. He and his wife Nancy moved to Ontario to be close to their children and grandchildren.

Ms. Doucette, who is married with two daughters, said that after her father received the thank-you card, he copied it and the Journal story, adding a note saying he felt that former staff “have lived under a cloud” in the past 10 years, a period when many former students have sued the churches and the federal government over abuse claims. Ms. Doucette helped him send the copies to 38 friends and acquaintances.

Then, she said, “he felt he had closure. He stopped taking his heart pills and other medication. It was almost like he was orchestrating his death.” Mr. Pilcher died in September, 2004 at the age of 89.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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