Canon John Erb dies at 72

Published September 1, 2005

Canon John Erb, right, with daughter Katie and son Nicholas. Mr. Erb was passionate about the church, said his family and friends.

Canon John Erb, whose exuberant manner and outsized personality marked his eight-year tenure as executive director of the Anglican Foundation, died July 31 in Toronto of a rare brain disorder, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), at the age of 72.

“He just peacefully stopped breathing. He was ready,” said his sister, Margie Carr, in an interview. Family members were at his side, including his children, Nicholas and Katie, who have “grown through this experience,” said Mrs. Carr.

Mr. Erb had been moved to the palliative care unit at St. Michael’s Hospital just over one week before he died, she said. He had entered the hospital in early July.

“John was a man who lived life to the fullest, laughed the loudest, cared the deepest and shared the most,” wrote June Moyle, his assistant, in an e-mail to staff at the Anglican Church of Canada’s national office in Toronto.

On July 18, in one of his last visits at the hospital with friends and colleagues, Mr. Erb said, haltingly, “I’m sorry I don’t have more to give.”

His wife, Diana, from whom he was separated, was there when he died.

A broader perspective on Mr. Erb’s life came at his funeral service August 6 at a packed St. James’ Cathedral in Toronto.

David Hughes, who described himself as Mr. Erb’s “dear friend,” said Mr. Erb had asked him to speak and he cited the sense of honesty that in recent years caused Mr. Erb to leave his family and live “as a proud gay man.”

Mr. Erb began feeling unwell in May, according to Ms. Moyle. The disease progressed rapidly.

CJD, which strikes one in one million people, is also known as spongiform encephalopathy, and one form, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (also known as mad cow disease), can be transmitted to humans who have eaten contaminated beef.

An article in the Toronto Sun on July 28 raised the possibility that Mr. Erb had the mad cow variant, but according to Dr. Michael Finkelstein of Toronto Public Health, the city’s public health department, a diagnosis can only be made through an autopsy.

The department conducted an investigation of the case, he said, but couldn’t estimate how long it would take.

According to medical literature, one form of CJD, called sporadic, occurs spontaneously, mainly in older persons. CJD has occasionally been transmitted through blood or infected instruments or tissue. One person in Canada has died of the bovine version of the disease. Researchers believe an infectious form of a protein causes it, but there is no treatment.

Mr. Erb brought a zestful personality, booming voice, six-foot-plus height and a collection of bow ties to the national office when he became director of the foundation in 1997.

He traveled widely around Canada, visiting parishes supported by the foundation’s grants and loans, and reported on his travels in the foundation’s newsletter.

Recently, he led a re-evaluation of the foundation’s mandate and oversaw a one-day festival of sacred arts in Toronto. Created in 1957, the Foundation annually distributes about $850,000 in grants and loans for church renovations, bursaries for theological students, liturgical art and other projects.

Mr. Erb earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1962 from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., and a bachelor of sacred theology degree in 1965 from Trinity College, Toronto. He did post-graduate work in 1993 at Virginia Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

Prior to joining the foundation, Mr. Erb was for 16 years rector of the Church of St. Michael and All Angels in Toronto. He also served St. Luke’s church, Grace Church on the Hill and St. Aidan’s church in Toronto. He was a member of a prominent family in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., whose name is on a street, a trucking company and an insurance company.

“We had a tremendous childhood. John was active, lots of fun and he loved meeting new people but never lost his old friends,” recalled another sister, Cathie Howard. Mrs. Carr, who was 11 years younger than Mr. Erb, remembered how Mr. Erb’s “boisterous ways” prompted her to stand up for herself.

Mr. Erb was also well-known in social and business circles in Toronto. He has served as chaplain to the Law Society of Upper Canada and has said grace at meetings of the Canadian Club of Toronto, a business organization.

His interests did not lie only with the upper end of society. In 1988, he was a founder of Out of the Cold, a food and shelter program for the homeless. He also chaired Street Outreach Services in the diocese of Toronto and served on the Toronto Refugee Affairs Committee.

He was also passionately interested in youth. From 1967-1970, he was diocesan youth director in Guyana and from 1970-1973 was youth secretary at the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in London.

In addition to his immediate family, Mr. Erb is survived by his brothers-in-law, John Howard and Bob Carr, and his nephews and nieces.


  • Solange DeSantis

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

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