Two things have been a constant in the life of Catherine Marcellus for over 60 years: the community of Mission, and a devotion to community education. Marcellus and her husband Jim settled in Mission in 1947 when he set up his medical practice. They’ve lived in the same house since 1952.
For her dedication to nurturing the intellectual and cultural climate of her community, the 87-year-old Marcellus is receiving an honorary doctorate degree from the University of the Fraser Valley this spring. Her Doctor of Letters degree will be conferred on June 11 at UFV’s convocation ceremony.
When Catherine and Jim arrived in Mission there were no opportunities for continuing education. As a keen scholar who had earned a Bachelor of Arts at Queen’s University by the time she was 20, this didn’t sit well with Catherine.
“When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I felt I needed to take some courses, but the closest ones I could find were correspondence courses from my alma mater Queen’s, half a country away. A group of women started a local chapter of the University Women’s Club in 1953, and they asked me if I’d be president. I said I’d never done such a thing, and they said ‘you’ll never know what you can do until you try.’”
Catherine took that advice to heart and has been trying her best to foster a vibrant intellectual community in Mission ever since. From lunches and educational programs with the University Women’s Club, she moved on to become an appointed school board member.
By the early 1960s she had identified, along with a local librarian, a need for a Great Books program, through which participants could discuss major works of literature. Almost 50 years later, the group is still going, with two of the original members still attending.
“That was probably the best thing I’ve ever done,” she recalls. “And it started out with just a few of us wanting to further our own education. I came from a family for whom education was the most important thing. My brother was an MD, and sister [the late UBC historian Margaret Ormsby], had a PhD, and I guess I just never wanted to stop learning.”
As the decades progressed, Catherine took on more complex challenges. In the mid-1970s the old Mission Hospital was sitting empty, and she worked with a group of citizens to successfully have it converted into a community services building. This was the first tri-level community services building in Canada, an accomplishment of which Catherine is particularly proud.
Then in the 1980s the local centre of Fraser Valley College was threatened with closure. The community education planner of the day, Ron Coreau, thought that encouraging a seniors’ education society would encourage greater use of the college facility and help it survive.
From this effort the Lifetime Learning Centre Society was born, with Catherine as a founding member. It had a mandate of providing educational programming for the intellectually curious of all ages. The society started on a shoestring with volunteer organizers and lecturers, and has continued to the present day, sustaining itself through lecture and workshop fees, grants, and donor and municipal support.
Over the years Lifetime Learning has provided general interest community programming in a variety of areas, including history, wellness, science, theatre, genealogy, philosophy, computers, and music. The society has won awards for video productions, oral history projects, and for general contribution to the community. And two decades later Catherine remains a dedicated volunteer board member. While the Lifetime Learning society has always had a relationship with UFV, it long ago struck out on its own with separate facilities.
People in Mission are used to political battles and fighting for their share of public funding and resources. As a dedicated Mission citizen of many decades, Catherine has been involved in several campaigns aimed at preserving health and hospital services, and increasing access to post-secondary education.
In the early 1970s she was one of the Mission citizens consulted by a task force planning a college for the Fraser Valley on what her community would want from a college. In the 1980s she helped keep the Fraser Valley College Mission Centre going through the Lifetime Learning initiative. In the1990s she advocated for a more significant university presence in the community by actively supporting and campaigning for what became the Heritage Park Centre, a facility that houses a secondary school, a community theatre, and the UFV Mission campus. She then sat on the steering committee for the Heritage Park Centre. And in the 21st century she continues to advocate for more university programming and presence in her community.
“Mission has had a long history of community activism, much of which was led by women and much of which I’ve been a part of,” she recalls. “Our dedication to education has come from the grassroots in Mission, not from the top. It’s always a struggle in Mission to get services for our community, but the fact that we have to struggle brings us closer together.”
Catherine earned her bachelor’s degree in the 1940s and her master’s degree in the 1980s, after which she taught at Simon Fraser University as a TA and replacement instructor for several years. She also taught in continuing education for UFV until she was 65. Now, as an octogenarian in 2010, she is touched to be receiving an honorary doctorate from UFV.
“I was absolutely surprised and very happy to receive this honour,” Catherine says. “I thought, ‘gee whiz, someone thought what I’ve done is all right.’ My mother would have been very proud, since I was the only child of hers without a doctoral degree. It’s nice to be considered as someone who’s done something for her community.”
It wasn’t just ‘someone’ who thought what Catherine has done is all right. Her nomination received enthusiastic letters of support from many of Mission’s leading citizens and politicians.
Catherine and her husband Jim celebrate their 67th wedding anniversary on June 7. They were saddened to have lost their two eldest sons during the last decade, but are “greatly blessed” by having daughter Elizabeth and her family close by, and enjoy regular visits from their son Chris.
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