Valerie serves up tasty food for me and my sister
My writer friend Valerie Giles was a woman of faith. She shared pivotal moments about her road to Roman Catholicism in her history column in the Prince George Citizen. Her stories about serving with food were mouthwatering!
Valerie shared an early memory of receiving a precious Bible at about age 10. Her keeping of special books continued for life: she built more bookshelves and never let go of a book once it was hers.
“I recall with great fondness the day that the Gideons came to our Grade Five classroom at Heath elementary school with Bibles for each of us. That was once a rite of passage in elementary school. It meant you got to the age and stage where you could appreciate the significance of receiving such a gift. Although I already had my own beautiful Bible with colour picture plates interspersed throughout as a gift from my parents, I treasured this new one.
“The Gideons provided small New Testament Bibles, just the right size for a child’s hands. Mine has a wine-coloured cover with gold letters embossed on the cover. On the inside fly-leaf is a colour photograph of the Union Jack, a page of Bible passages on the subject of wisdom for youth, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and some well-loved hymns, including ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ which the boys liked so much. The pages following printed the words to Canada’s national anthems, the Beatitudes, and two concordances listing where to find ‘What Jesus Taught Us About Some of Life’s Problems’ and ‘Positive Traits to be Cultivated.’ There followed the New Testament and the books of Psalms and Proverbs.
This little Bible still has pride of place in my home along with other special books I treasure. I always know where it is, and when I take it in my hands I remember that happy day in the fifth grade.”
Valerie’s parents were members of the Anglican Church of Canada, but she recalled their arrival there was the result of a painful separation from the Roman Catholic Church. A family member in her grandparents’ generation left after being ostracized for a failed marriage.
“Two generations ago, my family was Roman Catholic. In the early decades of the twentieth century, dissolution of marriage was considered such a disgrace that divorced people were denied sacraments or made to leave the church.
“Many displaced Catholics found their way to the Church of England, which retained the familiar liturgy, vestments and organizational structure of bishops, priests and deacons. A commonly-held belief was that the practical difference was the leadership hierarchy. Instead of recognizing the Pope, the Church of England looks to the Archbishop of Canterbury as its prime ecclesiastical authority, with the reigning English monarch in the role of Defender of the Faith. It was in 1955 that in the spirit of Canadian nationalism, delegates attending the Synod meeting in Edmonton voted to change the name to the Anglican Church of Canada.”
Valerie embraced the Anglican church for many years. She would have been baptized there as an infant; the next step was confirmation as a young adult.
“I was confirmed in the Anglican Church at 13. In addition to the requirement that the catechism be precisely memorized and recited, Canon Bayes insisted that we also memorize the order of service in the Book of Common Prayer. I learned it easily, and the comforting, familiar words have stayed with me.
“In my travels, it seemed remarkable that the liturgy was the same whether the voices lifted up inside the soaring dome of St. Paul’s cathedral in London or a modest A-frame church in Hong Kong. Now that the print is shrinking in prayer books, I am grateful I know the words to the Venite [Come], Te Deum Laudamus [God, we praise you] and the Benedictus [a hymn of praise]. In 1991, I had the wonderful experience of hearing the Te Deum chanted in Latin at St. Paul’s [Cathedral in London].”
The Latin order of service even helped Valerie when studying Latin. “In high school, I was privileged to study Latin. I had a missal with the prayers and responses for the Mass in Latin on the left side and in English on the right-hand pages. Those prayers became familiar, and helped reinforce the structure of Latin sentences and built vocabulary.”
From age 14 to 24, Valerie taught Sunday School to children “ranging in age from pre-school to teenagers. We followed the ‘Whole People of God’ curriculum — which was superbly researched and relevant to the social issues challenging society in general and designed to inspire response from the Christiam community.”
One difficult topic broached was world hunger, “a natural topic for Thanksgiving. Children learned about the potato famine which devastated Ireland between 1845 and 1850. Over those five years, almost two million poor people starved to death. The poor lived on potatoes because it was all they could afford, and they were the people most severely affected when the potato crop failed. The awful irony was that in those years, the poor farmers actually produced enough agricultural products to feed the country twice over — but the landowners took their produce in payment for rent of the land and used it for export.
“The children also learned about World Food Day — created by the United Nations in 1979 and observed each year on October 16th. Ever since, the goal of having ‘food for all’ is promoted in 150 nations around the world. Many churches participate by holding community dinners or organizing drives to fill shelves at local food banks.”
She found teaching children “wonderfully rewarding” and enjoyable, except for one painful day. “We were coming up to Holy Week and the lesson was about the crucifixion and resurrection. Just as I was finishing, one sad-eyed little boy raised his hand and asked, ‘If Jesus could come back from being dead, then why can’t my Grandpa?’ I felt my face collapse and the tears came fast. Fortunately, that was the time when team teaching was popular and the teacher at the other end of the table saw my reaction. Mercifully, she took over so I could walk away. I sat in the priest’s office until I stopped crying. I was sad for the little boy but felt even more upset because I didn’t know what to do to help him.” Valerie was relieved to later learn of a Catholic program called Rainbows, founded in Chicago in 1983, which helped children process difficult feelings like grief.
A highlight of the church calendar was Christmas. Valerie reminisced about her childhood celebrations: “During Advent, the church was beautifully decked out with the ‘hanging of the greens’ and the scent of cedar wafted down from overhead. The Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve had fewer children than the numbers attending at 7 p.m., but candy canes were handed out to the ones able to stay awake for it.
“A long-lasting and beautiful memory is the use of candles to symbolize the light of Christ in the world. As people came in to the dimly-lit church, a long thin taper was handed to each one. At the beginning, the priest reminded everyone of the symbolism and the altar boys lit a candle in the front row on each side of the church. Each person passed the light from one candle to the other. Within about five minutes, all the candles were lit and we were silently reminded that the light represented the impact of Christ’s teachings in the world.”
Valerie knew instinctively that feeding the soul was aided by feeding the body, and served the church in that way. I love her story about what happened when her siblings had naughty ideas for cookie decorations. The quantity was also impressive.
“When I was 14, I taught my first Sunday School class. That year, I decided to bake gingerbread men for the entire Sunday School — which required 75 cookies. It took all afternoon to mix up and bake enough batches to get the total needed. I had the icing tubes loaded and ready to decorate them but decided to take a break.
“While I went upstairs to take a nap, my brother (who was 11) and my sister (who was 8) decided to give me a hand. Using the icing tubes they proceeded to write every bad word they knew across the bodies of almost all the gingerbread men. I was appropriately furious to discover what they’d done and had to make extra batches to make the quota.
“Much later, I had to admit that I had been impressed that they’d managed to write the word ‘TOILET’ on one because that was about the largest word which could be accommodated in the space available.”
Valerie privately shared another story about mysteriously missing baking, when she volunteered with the coffee group at St. Michael’s and All Angels Anglican Church in Prince George. Again, her commitment to quantity was striking.
“One thing that congregation did well was to have a good sense of building the parish community by having people stay for coffee. This was not some crummy effort involving styrofoam cups and paper plates….
“Every Sunday, a ‘team’ would be responsible for making the coffee and organizing that donations of cookies, cakes, slices, tarts, rolls, candies…fruit…juice…etc. were brought and set out on a couple of large tables. People did stay in large numbers and even up to a half hour or forty-five minutes later they’d still be there visiting. It was a rather nice feature, I thought.
“Well, I had come from a parish where the effort was even better than that — actually stellar — where there would be about six tables literally groaning with very wonderful, fancy presentations of delightful treats. I carried on with the idea that I was to bring something very nice — not just some basic cookies — so when I had a turn I would bring huge platters of my ‘burnt offering’ and drop it off at one of the tables in the church hall before going into the church.
“I started to notice when I came back afterwards that my large platter would somehow be reduced from a mountain to a little hill. It didn’t take long to realize that a couple of the boys were sneaking out of the church and pigging out on the treats ahead of time. I guess I should be flattered that mine was always one of the ones flattened because I did bring very nice, tasty food.
“Well, these little rats were badly behaved but there was no chance that anybody would ever say anything to them because they were the grandchildren of prominent members of the parish. I came close one day when I walked into the hall and they were lurking near the platter I’d brought. I asked them, “What happened to all those cookies?” They just laughed but I didn’t think it was funny….
“My attitude towards them did a 180-degree flip the next Sunday. There they were, standing up at the front of the church looking all angelic in their white surplices. They opened their cookie-devouring mouths and started to sing. It was the Pie Jesu — sung as boy sopranos only can do. Within seconds I had a flood of tears down my face. After that, they could eat all the cookies they wanted! I’m reminded that even the badly behaved can have their redeeming qualities!”
Valerie once told me how she joined several volunteers to form a “Heavenly Food Group” that cooked gourmet meals on weekends for a local priest. The menu that night included roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, even though Valerie was vegetarian. Some members of the group were Sylvia Fowler (1939-2018), Diane Rogers (1949-2021), Kathi Travers (1950-2019), Joy Cotter and Linda Hebert.
When a friend was being treated for cancer in 2010, Valerie joined a group of friends who delivered dinners for the whole family every evening. She wrote: “It was my turn, Sunday, to take a dinner over. I made a Greek salad, a broccoli and cheese quiche (brie/ricotta/German butter cheese) and an angel food cake for dessert…. All I can do is help any way I can. Her family says they think the food I make is really tasty. (When it’s meat, I have no idea if I get it right — but they say I do.)”
It was the same day when Valerie also baked for a church function. A single plate would never do: “I made a big batch of peanut butter cookies, another batch of ‘birds-nest’ cookies with strawberry jam centres, and a plate of Rice Krispie squares. Then, I produced four dozen quince tarts — got them baked and just as I was loading them in the car, chaos erupted.
“My doggie, Fluevog, got into rascal mode. He was in the back yard, but when I opened the door to carry out the baskets of food, he sense the opportunity to go running out and took off. I spent twenty frustrating minutes trying to get him back in the house. Eventually, somebody called from the church asking where I was because I was close to a half hour overdue on delivering the goodies.
“Fluevog came back into the house once, but when I went to shut the door, he raced ahead and got out again and would not return. Some young men across the street saw my predicament and helped chase him back into the yard and I tossed dog biscuits to coax him back behind the door. What an ordeal! I think the part that made me the most furious was thinking that I have invested about $150 in 'obedience' training for him and it hasn’t made him understand he needs to listen to me when called.
I made the delivery to the church.” Then she turned to cooking dinner for her ailing friend.
I miss those days of enjoying baking and conversation after church, now paused due to a pandemic.
It puzzled me that strong, independent Valerie would be happy where women were excluded from key leadership roles. When I lived in Prince George in the 1990s, I often saw her at St. Michael and All Angels Anglican Church, but in the next decade, she became a devoted Catholic. She shrugged off concerns about gender roles, enjoying the traditional kitchen sphere and offering her talents of writing and research to the parish.
Valerie explained her change of affiliation in her column: “In the spring of 2003, the Catholic Churches of Prince George mounted a program entitled ‘Welcome Home’ and advertised the invitation to inactive and alienated Catholics to attend and explore the possibility of returning to the fold. That’s how I met Father Hampson.”
The priest was a recent arrival from Ireland. Two nuns from the Sisters of Mercy had told him about their work in Prince George. “One of his long standing plans was to serve the aboriginal population in Canada, and the Sister’s description of this area opened up the possibility of realizing that ambition. He knew about the challenges to be met and that the numbers were daunting. There are only a dozen priests serving the 100,000 members of the diocese and the distances are great. The population is spread out over an area which would comprise the land mass of an average European country!
“He took up the challenge and arrived at Sacred Heart Cathedral. Investing his faith and enthusiasm into the life of the congregation, he reached out and engaged the broader faith community with considerable success.”
Valerie discovered the Welcome Home program could even heal multi-generational trauma. She knew friends who had felt abandoned by the church after they divorced, “through no fault of their own…. I didn’t experience that myself because my family’s separation from the church by divorce happened long before I was born. But, I’ve seen the hurt that my friends faced being shoved out. It crumpled their souls. The ‘Welcome Home’ program sounded like it could become the path back. I decided to attend and find out. I was surprised and relieved to discover that the invitation is sincere.
“Halfway through that program, I was in Toronto and showed the ‘Welcome Home’ ad from the Prince George Citizen to former Prime Minister John Turner, who is legal counsel for the Diocese of Toronto. He read the ad and responded, ‘Good for them. Good for them!’ He thought it was a terrific idea.
“Since then, I’ve contemplated why the message to lapsed Catholics is working. It isn’t just the offer to ‘bring your questions and concerns,’ but the response which comes from priests like Father Hampson. There is no judment in those kind green eyes — only acceptance. He radiates that wonderful sense of peace achieved through the blessings of strong faith.”
Valerie made an unusual confession to Father Hampson before his return to Ireland in 2004. “Perhaps my favourite memory will be the day I confessed to Father Hampson that I have always supposed that God speaks with an Irish accent. He allowed as how that might be a perfectly reasonable assumption!”
In 1996, Valerie was uncomfortable with crowds when visiting the Vatican with her mother. “I’ve always avoided situations where there would be large crowds. It was because of the panic I expected I would feel that I didn't attend BC Place Stadium when Pope John Paul II visited Vancouver in 1984.
“A dozen years later, I was at the Vatican with my Mom and, standing in the middle of St. Peter’s square, I couldn’t imagine being there in the crush I’d seen on television at Easter or Christmas.”
But she set aside her fears when joining a pilgrimage to a Marian shrine at Fatima, Portugal in 2007. “I found myself on a pilgrimage at Fatima on the eve of the 90th anniversary of the visions. I asked my friend, JoAnne, where we should settle in for the celebrations that evening. She led the way into the centre of the square in front of the basilica. As the sun went down, for as far as we could see in every direction there was a sea of flickering candles. This was a powerful, emotional feeling to realize that we were with people from all over the world. The next day, we found out that we had been at the centre of a crowd numbering a half million. It surprised me that I felt no fear. It had been an exhilarating experience which I will cherish forever.”
Valerie’s quotation from a poem by Beatrice Cleland, found in her former Anglican church, describes how she endeavoured to live out her faith. She wrote in her column, “In an old prayer book in the priest’s office at St. Michael’s, someone long ago carefully wrote this prayer inside the front cover. It is an interesting contemplation:
Not merely in the word you say,
Nor only in your deeds confessed,
But in the most unconscious way
Is Christ expressed.
Is it a beatific smile?
A holy light upon your brow?
Oh, no, I felt His presence while
You laughed just now.
For me, T’was not the truth you taught
To you so clear, to me still dim
But when you came to me you brought
A sense of Him.
And from your eyes He beckons me,
And from your heart His love is shed
Till I lose sight of you and see
The Christ instead.”