Dedicated, devoted, passionate, courageous, serious, knowledgeable, well read, always on the job, always available, always thinking pro-life. Those are just some of the words those who knew him are using to describe Father Jim Whalen, who passed away suddenly on Feb. 24 while doing one of the things he loved best – conducting a parish pro-life mission.
Whalen was the only national director Canadian Priests for Life ever had, taking the reins of the nascent organization in 1996 and steering it in subsequent years through a Canadian society increasingly devoted to a culture of death. Prior to that appointment, he had served as the designated pro-life researcher and analyst for the Archdiocese of Ottawa under Archbishop Marcel Gervais.
Canadian Priests for Life operations manager Mike Vande Wiel recalled accompanying Whalen to his final parish mission in Thorold, Ont., near Niagara Falls.
“It was Sunday morning at the first Mass,” he said. “He had said the homily, then went and sat in the sacristy and spoke to the pastor of the parish … Right near the final blessing, the pastor … came rushing down the aisle … He said to me, ‘Something’s wrong with Father Jim.’ I followed him up the church and into the sacristy. I believe at that point, Father Jim had already passed away. But a nurse came up from the congregation and immediately have him CPR.”
Unfortunately, the nurse’s efforts and those of emergency personnel who subsequently arrived were unsuccessful and Whalen could not be revived. Vande Wiel said Whalen had been feeling “very tired” if he exerted himself, such as climbing stairs, for about the previous three weeks. Regrettably, the priest resisted calls to see a doctor about these sudden episodes of exhaustion.
The 68-year-old Whalen taught at all levels in the Ottawa Catholic School Board before becoming a priest with the Archdiocese of Ottawa in 1972. He held a master’s degree in psychology and a doctorate in philosophy. His doctoral thesis is being used as a textbook at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pa.
He also served as the spiritual director of the Legion of Mary Senatus and the Ottawa-area Catholic Home Schoolers’ Association. He spent 30 years assisting the native people of Canada as chaplain for Native Peoples of Ottawa and founder of the Odawa Native Friendship Centre.
Whalen was pastor of St. Margaret Mary bilingual parish in Cumberland, just outside Ottawa. When the opportunity came to lead Priests for Life, Whalen unhesitatingly said yes. “As a priest, we cannot not be involved,” he said. “We must use all the forces available to us to attack the problems of contraception, abortion and euthanasia.”
Father Paul Burchat, a former chairman of Canadian Priests for Life, gave the homily at Whalen’s funeral. He said in terms of the pro-life cause, Whalen “was certainly very willing to take on all comers and was not shy about speaking up when he needed to in spite of what it might cost him.”
He credited Whalen with starting up several Priests for Life publications, including thePriests for Life Canada newsletter (for priests), Facts for Life (for high school students) andCatholic Life and Family (for parishioners). He was also instrumental in establishing an annual symposium and was “always” travelling on the mission trail.
On the spiritual side, he founded a perpetual adoration chapel in his church, in devotion to the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist.
Vande Wiel said Whalen was an able leader of Priests for Life as “an extremely intelligent man. He could think through things quickly and come to decisions quickly.” He added Whalen focused on “total Christianity,” which meant not only opposing abortion, but also contraception as a precursor to abortion. “He would rarely speak without making that point,” said Vande Wiel.
Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life in the U.S., said, “All who are building the culture of life have lost a great leader and friend in Father Jim Whalen … (who) played a key role in starting the international growth of Priests for Life.”
Wake services were conducted at Whalen’s home church, but the funeral was moved to Divine Infant Parish in nearby Orleans to accommodate the more than 750 people, including 40-50 clergy, who attended. Interment was at Hope Cemetery in Ottawa, where Whalen was laid to rest alongside his mother. He is survived by three sisters.
Vande Wiel said the next issue of the Priests for Life Canada newsletter will be a special tribute to Whalen.