A July 19 boat cruise on the Toronto harbour will highlight the 90th birthday celebrations for Fr. Ted Colleton, one of the most energetic personalities to emerge on Canada’s pro-life scene.

Priest, teacher, comedian, raconteur, cheerful but firm leader, humble servant, genuinely uplifting soul. Take your pick from this melange of positive nouns and adjectives. Add your own anecdotes if you are fortunate enough to know him, and you might do justice to the man known simply as “Fr. Ted.”

A Catholic priest of the Spiritan (Holy Ghost) order, Colleton turns 90 years young July 20. The Dublin, Ireland native was born in 1913, just months before the “War to End All Wars,” and a generation before another declaration of war against the unborn. That this humble servant of the Lord would live to see abortion and contraception so widely practised no doubt grieves his Irish heart.

Throughout his life and priesthood, Colleton has presented a firm but cheerful example of deep faith and basic goodwill towards others. The young Ted Colleton developed an interest in mission work and entered the Holy Ghost novitiate at age 19. Upon ordination to the priesthood in 1940, he was assigned by the Spiritan missions to Kenya, Africa, where he remained for 30 years.

Colleton was an exemplary evangelizer in the African missions, learning the local languages and delighting natives with the depth of his teaching and his simple humor. The missionary’s commitment to spread the Gospel message eventually put him at odds with Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta and led to his expulsion from the country in 1971. Colleton had the temerity to remind the Kenyan leader that rather than acting as agents of a ruthless colonialism, Catholic missionaries were motivated by a higher calling.

It was while working in Kenya that Colleton sharpened a respect-for-life attitude. To him, the Kenyan tribespeople’s respect for procreation and motherhood would stand in sharp contrast to the cavalier attitude to abortion, contraception and promiscuity he would experience in North America.

He returned to Ireland in 1971, but was soon invited to work with his order’s Volunteers International Christians Service in Toronto. It was shortly after arriving in Toronto that Colleton became involved in right-to-life work. He never lost an opportunity to compare the Kenyans’ reverence for all life with the easy access to abortion in North American cities. “In 30 years (in Africa), I never heard of an abortion,” he told author Grace Petrasek in her 1991 book Silhouettes in the Snow. “I speak two African languages and I don’t know the word for abortion in either. I had come to this wonderful country of Canada to find a society that tries to solve its social problems by killing unborn babies by the thousands. This shocked me into action.”

Colleton’s idea of action is always high profile or by example. He undertook a number of symbolic yet effective protests, including padlocking the gates of Henry Morgentaler’s former abortuary on Harbord Street in Toronto. The priest would suffer arrest and imprisonment for these activities, as well as for his participation in Operation Rescue activities in the late 1980s.

Nonetheless, he never missed an opportunity to pray and demonstrate his deep faith to those around him. One reporter, seeing a chance to interview the activist-priest in the tumultuous days prior to the Operation Rescue activity, was surprised to find Colleton quietly praying the Rosary amid the hubbub.

Colleton’s support of pro-life efforts continues to consume most of his waking hours. In addition to writing a monthly column for The Interim, he wrote three books outlining his life and work. Proceeds from sales of his three books Yes, I’m a Radical (1987), Yes, I’d Do It Again (1990), and Yes, I’m Still a Radical (2001) – all published by Interim Publishing – are generously turned over to the pro-life cause, as are sales of audiocassettes of some of the priest’s most stirring homilies and lectures. In some cases, noted Campaign Life Coalition national president Jim Hughes, it was the sale of Colleton’s books and tapes that kept the organization financially sound.

In addition to his book-sale efforts, Colleton has organized a number of concerts and shows to raise money for pro-life and mission causes. He once played a key role in arranging fundraising concerts in Toronto by the late Irish tenor Frank Patterson. The shows opened with performances by several Irish comedians, including Father Ted himself, whose gift for Irish blarney became well known.

Despite his gentle humour, Colleton is all business when it comes to upholding the sanctity of human life. He has never lost sight of the observation that all that is required for evil to flourish is for men and women of goodwill to do nothing. Undoubtedly, this dictum inspired the boundless energy and enthusiasm of this good man to combat the abortion/contraception mentality.

Although he is most popular with Roman Catholics, Colleton inspires people of other faiths. Evangelical minister Rev. Ken Campbell, founder and president of Choose Life Canada, told The Interim that Fr. Colleton is one of the greatest friends of the pro-life struggle in North America. “He’s a giant who has contributed more to the pro-life movement than any other clergyman in the country,” Campbell said. “It is an honor for me to have been associated with him.”

Campbell, who mirrored Colleton with his public demonstrations against abortion and other anti-family practices, said the priest’s easygoing, friendly disposition overcame any doctrinal differences between Catholics and evangelical Protestants. “I found that we affirmed each other in our differences, when we might have been feuding about faith issues,” Campbell said.

A sour note late in Colleton’s priestly career underscored some of the many tensions faced by faith leaders who refuse to accommodate their faith with changing social mores. During the celebration of a Mass at a Toronto parish in 1997, Colleton preached on sin and the need for obedience of God’s law. He used pro-life lessons to make his point, only to be challenged by members of the congregation who did not appreciate point-blank lessons about sin, obedience and morality. It was an ironic note that the challenge was centred on such a basic tenet of Catholic teaching. It no doubt stung Colleton, who throughout his priesthood is honoured by the privilege of celebrating the Eucharist.

Natalie Hudson, executive director of the Right to Life Association of Toronto and Area, said that as he enters his tenth decade of life, Colleton’s appeal remains strong. “I’d say that the Right to Life Association is indebted to him for the countless hours in volunteer time he has given to the association by speaking in the schools,” she told The Interim. “Fr. Ted displays a love of life that is infectious. The students love him, the teachers love him and he always has a few magic tricks up his sleeve. He is a constant, joyful witness to life.”

In a June 6 interview with The Interim, Colleton reflected on his 32 years of pro-life work in Canada. “It’s always difficult to assess our real progress,” he said. “Certainly there has been some, especially in terms of reaching younger people, but there’s still a lot to be done. A great many babies have been saved over the years, but we can’t ignore the fact that we are still murdering more than 100,000 unborn babies every year.”

Colleton, who remains active with administrative work for the Spiritan Fathers, along with involvement with the Nightwatch vocations program, has certainly known setback in his long life and priesthood. But he continues to find inspiration from his priestly calling. Call him sentimental, but Colleton still gets misty-eyed at these words he wrote in 1990, on the occasion of his 50th anniversary as a priest:

“For half a century, I have daily ‘stood at the altar of God’ and offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, raised my hand in absolution over more repentant sinners than I could ever count, poured the waters of baptism over the heads of babies without number, preached the Gospel in Ireland, England, Africa, the United States and Canada and anointed the foreheads of those who were within minutes of meeting God face to face. And through the teaching of the Church, I know that, in spite of my unworthiness, all these actions were not only valid but fruitful. And although I was only the instrument of the church, it is consoling to realize in the evening of life that I was chosen to be such an instrument. In this period of Church history, when the glory of the priesthood has been somewhat overshadowed by the clouds of scandal and doubt, I want to affirm this fact: if I had another life to live, I’d do it again.”