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Publication: Globe and Mail, The add link
Issue: 11 December 2008, page L6
Title: GRACE LILIAN IRWIN (Lives Lived)
Web Link: link


Teacher, Christian minister, acclaimed author. Born July 14, 1907, in Toronto. Died Sept. 16 in Toronto of old age, aged 101.


December 11, 2008

Grace Irwin taught classics at Toronto's Humberside Collegiate Institute for 38 years. In those days Latin was a compulsory subject, one that teenagers approached with resignation or apprehension. Grace succeeded in making that vanished world real.

She told lively stories about the Roman deities and staged student performances complete with togas, laurel wreaths and spoken Latin.

For decades, Miss Irwin's Latin Club was one of the many extracurricular activities available to students with a sense of adventure and the will to learn. She received no extra pay and no particular reward except the satisfaction of kindling in others her own love of classical languages and literature.

Grace was an institution at Humberside. A small, energetic, superbly composed woman, she knew all her students by name and had an uncanny instinct for divining their abilities and shortcomings. She walked briskly to and from school four times a day, which undoubtedly figured in her robust health and longevity.

Outside the walls of the classroom, Grace led a pioneering, accomplished life. As the author of several acclaimed novels and two important works of historical fiction, Servant of Slaves (about John Newton of Amazing Grace) and The Seventh Earl (about Lord Shaftesbury and 19th-century factory reform), she was a speaker in great demand. She wrote her first novel, Compensation, when she was 20 and waited more than 70 years to see it published.

Grace was also an amateur actress of great talent, easily picking up a role from a Gilbert and Sullivan musical and performing with grace and verve.

After retiring from teaching in 1969, Grace served as pastor of Emmanuel Evangelical Church for many years.

On the last Wednesday of every month she held her "at home," when church friends, former students, writers, relatives and visitors from abroad dropped by for tea and her famous shortbread.

Summers were spent on Loon Echo Island in Haliburton County, Ont. Grace paddled to and from the island well into her 90s, even travelling by rowboat to do her shopping and carrying all the groceries up a steep, rocky path.

Grace had completed her bachelor's and master's degrees in classics at the University of Toronto's Victoria College, and all her friends cheered when Victoria University recognized her academic and spiritual contributions with an honorary doctorate of sacred letters in 1991. No doctorate has ever been more thoroughly earned.

Ruth Hayhoe and Heather Hill are Grace's friends and former students.