Remembering Our Dear Carolyn

May 12, 2015 at 4:07 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Professor, author, spiritual guide, radiant friend. Born on March 5, 1930, in Toronto; died on Dec. 24, 2014, in Toronto, following several strokes, aged 84.

Carolyn Gratton, the only child of Eleanor and James Gratton, grew up in Toronto and earned a bachelor of arts in English and a master’s degree in library science from the University of Toronto. A gorgeous young woman and committed Catholic, she might well have spent her life as a devoted wife and mother, or a librarian, or as a member of a vowed community of religious sisters.

But when she was 23 she visited Grailville, a farm and conference centre near Cincinnati, Ohio, and the North American headquarters of the Grail, an international Catholic laywomen’s movement. Carolyn attended a summer program on women’s role in society and was so fascinated by the ideas she encountered that she returned in the fall for the Grail’s year-long formation program, which prepared her for deeper participation in Catholic lay leadership. Within three years, she was a member of the Grail’s staff in North America and by the 1960s was leading Grail projects and programs across the United States and Canada. Wherever she went, people fell in love with her: her radiant smile and cracker-jack sense of humour, but especially her profound spiritual wisdom, surprising in a relatively young woman.

These were years of lively intellectual ferment within Catholicism and in Western societies. To deepen her own thinking on the burning questions of the time, she earned a master’s degree in theoretical anthropology in 1967. The life of academic inquiry suited her well, and Carolyn went on for a doctorate in phenomenological psychology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, which she completed in 1975. She then taught at Duquesne’s Institute of Formative Spirituality until the early 1990s.

During her teaching years Carolyn also had a strong impact on spiritual searchers throughout the world, leading ecumenical contemplative retreats and spiritual formation programs in Canada, the United States, Thailand, the Netherlands, Australia, East Africa, and other places. She also published two books and numerous articles aimed at spiritual directors and spiritual seekers. During these years she also served as a mentor to many individuals, myself included. As a result of our conversations with her about spirituality, life choices and faith, we were never the same again.

In the early 1990s, after retiring from teaching, Carolyn moved back to Toronto. She continued to travel abroad, leading spiritual programs for the increasingly ecumenical Grail movement, and other groups. But her main focus was on building Centering Prayer groups throughout Ontario. Centering Prayer is a branch of Contemplative Outreach, a movement founded by Cistercian monk Thomas Keating to spread the practice of contemplative prayer beyond monastery walls. Thanks to her passionate leadership, there are now 45 such groups in Ontario.

Carolyn was extraordinarily gifted in relating to people of all cultures and classes. During a 2005 Grail visit to Oaxaca, Mexico, she was paired at a village meeting with a woman named Efigenia, a barely literate member of the indigenous community. Efigenia came back from their conversation glowing with pride, explaining that the two women had much in common: They were both catechists (something like a Sunday school teacher), she explained.

Carolyn had not mentioned that she held a doctorate, or was a noted professor and author. Instead, she focused on what she and Efigenia had in common – the work of spiritual outreach. This was the remarkable woman whose death elicited messages and memories from people across North America and around the world. We will never forget her.

The author, Grail member Marian Ronan, is Carolyn’s friend of 50 years.

(This article appeared in the “Lives Lived” series in the Toronto Globe and Mail on Tuesday, May 12, 2015. It sounds almost as much like the editor as it does like the author!)



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  1. I love to read obits, even of people I don’t know. It makes it seem like they have touched even more people after their death. Great tribute, makes me wish I had met her and been moved even more by her. Your editor knew her too? Great job! Thank you both!


  2. I doubt the editor knew Carolyn, and just wanted to shape the narrative to her purposes. But good for the Globe and Mail to honor those whose lives might have been less noticed, and good for Marian for describing her friend.


  3. Thanks, Marian! My condolences on her death. I hope you are having a wonderful time in Ireland! Doretta


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