Grace Irwin was a Canadian teacher, acclaimed author and speaker who served as an admirable role model and influential Christian leader to students, readers and all who knew her.
Born on July 14, 1907 to John and Martha Irwin, Grace was the youngest in a family of devoted Methodists. She graduated from Victoria College and obtained a Master of Arts degree in the Classics from the University of Toronto. Continuing her relationship with the university, she served on the senate (1952-56), later receiving an honorary doctorate of Sacred Letters in 1991 for her writing and teaching careers. Irwin became a recipient of the Centennial Medal of Canada in 1968.
At Humberside Collegiate Institute, she taught Latin and history for 38 years, but as a charismatic teacher, she ensured these ancient subjects were never dull. She included her students in dramatic plays and narrated interesting anecdotes on Roman deities. Taking personal interest in her students, she helped them to not only realize their shortcomings but strengthen their abilities. Her influence to Humberside students extended to sponsoring Inter-School Christian Fellowships (affiliated with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship). She kept in touch with many former students by letters and visits and they remember her warmly.
Outside of Toronto and its environs, Irwin is best known for her writing. Her first of seven novels to be published was Least of All Saints, in 1952, however she penned Compensation (2003), when she was just 20 years old. A memoir, Three Lives in Mine (1986), recounts the influence of three men in her life, including her father, who died when she was just 10 years old, her brother, John, and her pastor friend, Rev. H. Harold Kent.
Known for her strong Christian faith “she was one of those who truly believed,” said John Irwin, of his aunt. Grace Irwin’s convictions led her to become disillusioned with the United Church and its “lack of intellectual and spiritual challenges,” (Parker, 1989), so she gathered a like-minded group together under Rev. Kent as pastor. Emmanuel Christian church first met together as a house church in Irwin’s living room. In 1980, after her retirement from teaching, she took on the position of pastoring and preaching at the church and with support from others, continued ministry into her nineties. In her golden years, she continued to walk several times a day and row a boat to her cottage on Loon Echo Island. Irwin was known as “an inspirational force in the lives of all who knew her,” (Broadworth, 2009). She died on September 16, 2008, at the age of 101.
Irwin’s novels are largely biographical and historical. In them, she examines intersections of life and faith within culture. “Irwin's territory is the religious novel that explores the relations between God and the individual and his society” (Parker, 1989).
Least of all Saints (1952), the first of the Andrew Connington trilogy, was translated into other languages. The other two books in the trilogy, Andrew Connington (1958) and Contend with Horses (1968) continue the story of the atheist-turned-believer’s journey of faith and leadership.
Irwin penned In Little Place when she was an undergrad, but it wasn’t published until 1959. The story of a single high school Latin teacher mirrors certain events of Irwin’s own life and teaching career (Panofsky, 18). Similarly, Compensation (2003), was published in her latter years. The book is set in 1920’s Haliburton and Toronto and serves as a first-hand account of time and place.
Servant of Slaves (Irwin, 1961), biographical fiction on the life of John Newton, slave trader and hymn writer, was voted best historical novel of the year and translated into German. As regards Newton, she appears to have written the book in order to dispel some of the rumors and slander regarding the man. While it may seem ironic to use a novel as a vehicle to tell the truth, she claims in her foreward to the book, “incidents needed only to be dramatized…Newton’s own writing or recorded conversation appears on almost every page.” She goes so far as to say, “anything unbelievable, of adventure, or coincidence, anything excessive…improbable that part of the book is provably factual, even understated” (Irwin, p. 8).
The Seventh Earl, (1976) is based on the life of Lord Shaftsbury, known for his social reforms in 19th century England. In the introduction, Irwin states, “Biographies are the thing; biographical novels, not unjustly suspect among those who wish the facts” (Irwin, 1976, p.vii). She states her reasons for utilizing this form. “ …his six biographies bog down in a welter in Parliamentary and socio-economic detail.” In other words, by using a novel, she has made the lives of remarkable people accessible to the average reader. But not without doing her homework. “..reading and copying hundreds of pages of the fourteen volumes of Shaftesbury’s handwritten diary…dozens of letters, legal documents and clippings” (p. vii).
Hebrews 12: 1 (NIV) states “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Irwin’s novels would serve as a reminder of those who have finished the race well, telling the stories of those who have gone before albeit through the vehicle of fiction.
In the memoir, Three Lives in Mine (1986), Irwin turns even closer to the truth, revealing more of herself, as she writes of the men who had an impact on her through their roles in her life. The book acknowledges her father, a staunch Methodist, her brother, co-founder of Clarke/ Irwin publishing, and the Rev. H. Harold Kent, an architect turned preacher as men who supported Irwin’s ambitions. “I do not find my sense of personal worth in any or in the aggregate of my limited achievements. Rather it lies in the grateful realization that I have been privileged in varying degree to support, encourage, enable, cheer these men who have so immeasurably enriched me,” (Irwin, 1986).
Irwin was considered a ‘Bluestocking’ by at least some of her peers. Initially the Blue Stockings Society was a women’s social movement emphasizing education and literature. According to Deborah Heller, (2015) the phenomenon became a much larger and longer historical movement. In Bluestockings Now, (Heller, 2015) Demers compares Irwin to Evangelical reformer Hannah More (1745-1833) attributing their “engagement in ..projects of social and cultural improvement” as being propelled by…”deeply enculturated Christian principles of charity and salvation history.” Although their realm was the secular world, they “color their work ‘with a resolute and joyous commitment to the integrity of life with and for others” (p.157).
Irwin’s legacy lives on through two awards in her name. The Word Guild, and Irwin’s nephew John and his wife Eleanor, co-sponsor the Grace Irwin Award, which is “Canada’s largest literary award for writers who are Christian” (The Word Guild, 2015).
The Grace Irwin Secondary School Teaching Award for teaching excellence as Irwin exemplified, is adjudicated by the Classical Association of Canada.
Though Irwin lived in an era where women were not often encouraged to accomplish intellectual pursuits and leadership, it is evident by her life that she took to heart her father’s words as she remembers them. “What we have to do is find out what is right for us and do it no matter what the rest of the world does” (as cited by Heller 2015, p. 158). Through her writing, teaching and preaching, Irwin did not only what was right for her, but service that was right for leading others.
Rose Seiler Scott has discovered through the process of writing and researching that history has much to teach us and fiction can play a role in telling the truth. Her debut novel, Threaten to Undo us (2015) won the historical fiction category in the 2016 Word Guild Awards. The story is based on the real life experiences of her father’s family in Europe around the time of World War Two. Two inspirational non-fiction pieces were published in the Canadian compilation, Hot Apple Cider with Cinnamon (2015). In addition to writing, teaching piano and spending time with her grandson, Rose is completing her BA in Leadership at TWU. She lives in Surrey, BC.
A Bibliography is available upon request.