Margaret O’Gara, a distinguished professor of theology at the University of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, died Aug. 16 at age 65, after a two-year battle with cancer.
A champion of ecumenism, O’Gara served from 1976 to 1993 on Canada’s Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue, and during that time worked closely with Canon Dr. Alyson Barnett-Cowan, former director of faith, worship and ministry for the Anglican Church of Canada.
“I have known Margaret since we were both graduate students,” says Barnett-Cowan, who is now director for unity, faith and order at the Anglican Communion in London. “She and I were the only (and perhaps the first) women to serve on the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue of Canada. We worked together in a variety of ecumenical settings from then on.”
O’Gara was “one of the most gracious people I have ever known,” says Barnett-Cowan. “Her commitment to ecumenism remained constant even through times when others became discouraged. Her commitment to her own church was absolute, yet she always listened deeply to the commitments and values of others.”
Barnett-Cowan recalls a sermon that O’Gara gave at the Holy Cross Orthodox Seminary in Boston. “She spoke about the tombs of the Tudor queens Mary and Elizabeth lying side by side in Westminster Abbey-close in death as they were not in life, each of them icons of two churches battling for supremacy during the Reformation, each of them deeply committed women of faith, now at rest and reconciled.”
The inscription on the tombs reads: “Partners in throne and grave, here we sleep, Elizabeth and Mary, sisters, in hope of the Resurrection.” O’Gara then went on to speak about what it might mean to be sister churches.
The primary goal of O’Gara’s 37 years of work as a theologian was, indeed, fostering dialogue among Christians in order to overcome divisions between the churches. Besides her teaching, research, writing and extensive public lecturing, she was also a member of official ecumenical dialogues in the U.S. and abroad. O’Gara also served as president of the North American Academy of Ecumenists and the Catholic Theological Society of America.
Her endeavours in these arenas were characterized by scholarly rigour, the ability to listen sympathetically, an uncommon energy and a delight in mutual understanding and friendship. The fundamental driving force of her life was her deep and abiding Christian faith.
In a 2011 address celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue, O’Gara acknowledged that the two denominations were still divided on many issues in their struggle toward unity, but noted that their discussions had sown promising seeds that would one day be harvested.
“She cared for and loved her students, her colleagues and her teaching at the Faculty of Theology very dearly,” said Fr. Mario D’Sousa, dean of theology at St. Michael’s and one of O’Gara’s former students, in a statement. “And while we mourn her passing, we know that we have a powerful and committed intercessor for our work and continued mission…”
O’Gara is survived by her husband, Prof. Michael Vertin, a University of Toronto emeritus professor of philosophy. In her honour, St. Michael’s has established the Margaret O’Gara Scholarship to support an advanced-degree student specializing in the area of ecumenical theology.
A funeral mass was held at St. Basil’s Church in Toronto on Thurs. Aug. 23. O’Gara will be buried in Breckenridge, Minn.