They came from across Canada to pay tribute to the woman who gave 25 years of her life to helping save preborn human beings from death at the doorstep of abortuaries run by Henry Morgentaler and Manole Buriana in Toronto. Even a “Reverend Jones” flew in from Tumbler Ridge, B.C. especially to offer his personal respects to Joanne Dieleman on her recent retirement.

“Reverend Jones,” as it turned out, was the code name given to Ken Campbell, the well-known Christian activist who worked closely with Dieleman in running the Way Inn crisis pregnancy counselling centre. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the centre sat right beside Morgentaler’s former Harbord Street abortuary, prior to a still-unsolved fire and explosion in 1992 that destroyed Morgentaler’s structure.

The crisis pregnancy counselling services were later merged with Aid to Women and moved to their current location on Gerrard Street East, where they sit right beside the Cabbagetown Women’s Clinic. Through it all, Dieleman remained at her post, becoming director and working with other dedicated pro-life supporters to ensure mothers had a last chance to change their minds about having their children killed inside the abortuaries.

On Nov. 6, the pro-life community had an opportunity to say “thanks,” and 165 of them did just that at a retirement banquet and silent auction emceed by Campaign Life Coalition president Jim Hughes at the Novotel Hotel in downtown Toronto.

A steady stream of leading pro-life figures went to the podium to offer their recollections from the past quarter-century – including Campbell, who had taken on the moniker “Reverend Jones” to ensure that his appearance at the banquet would remain a surprise.

“Thank God the Lord brought Joanne to us,” said Campbell, after his true identity had been revealed. Now the head of the evangelical pro-life organization Choose Life Canada, Campbell’s recollections of working with Dieleman at the old Way Inn facility have been published in the book, Five Years Rescuing at the Gates of Hell.

In an inscription on a plaque that Campbell gave to Dieleman, he added, “No one epitomizes the heart and soul of the Way Inn ministry as does our ‘inn keeper’ … and nothing better characterizes the life and service of this remarkable lady than does Dr. Luke’s description of Dorcas, a disciple of Jesus – ‘a woman full of good works.'”

“Thank you for the wonderful example you’ve given us,” added 91-year-old Father Ted Colleton, the unofficial chaplain of the Canadian pro-life movement, who began by regaling the audience with his traditional litany of jokes.

Entertainment and a number of presentations were also on the agenda. Aid to Women co-worker Robert Hinchey presented a gift of a globe inscribed with words from the Talmud on behalf of Linda Gibbons, the famous sidewalk counsellor who spent much of the late 1990s in jail, who was unable to attend because of commitments to caring for her father in Alberta. Hinchey also offered personal words of tribute.

The audience joined Interim circulation manager Dan Di Rocco and Witness president Jim Duffy in the recitation of A Genuine Heroine, a tune sung to the melody of the hymn Santa Lucia, with words penned by Father Louis Di Rocco. The chorus went as follows: “She’s pro-life to the core/Nobody has done more to counsel women to save their children/She’s touched so many hearts and saved so many lives/She’s our heroine/That’s Joanne Dieleman.”

Bill Mullally of Campaign Life Coalition presented an inscription on behalf of the City of Toronto, while Dieleman’s grand-daughter (and Interim contributor) Dina Kok performed Josh Groban’s You Raise Me Up on piano. Another grand-daughter, Alisha Kok, performed a second piano piece later.

Campaign Life Coalition financial manager Dick Cochrane, who was instrumental in the start-up of Aid to Women, presented Dieleman with a silver plate, and her son Adrian Jr. gave a tongue-in-cheek poetry recital. Yoli Singson, Ann Wilson, Rhonda Wood and Judy Johnson then presented Dieleman with a series of gifts, before a number of Dieleman family members performed a comedic skit.

It was then time to hear from the woman of honour herself, who said she was “really overwhelmed” by the occasion. Despite retiring officially, Dieleman pledged that she will not “abandon the little children” and will continue to offer her talents, though perhaps in a reduced capacity.

She recalled wryly the early days of her involvement with the Way Inn, when rabid pro-abortionists would not be above shouting at and spitting on pro-life activists when the opportunity arose. Through all those challenges and others, however, Dieleman was able to say that Aid to Women has been a blessing to many women.

In fact, during her last official day on the job, she was visited and hugged by a former client – a woman accompanied by a five-year-old child who was saved from the abortionist’s knife several years before.

Dieleman was quick to thank many others who have been instrumental in the Way Inn and Aid to Women’s success, and who helped make her job that little bit easier. She then urged all pro-lifers to consider giving one hour a month of their time to picketing and witnessing outside an abortuary. Through that, so many lives could be saved, she said.

“I pray that the story of Aid to Women continue, and that we be a beacon of light in a sinful city,” she concluded to a standing ovation.

It was clear to all that if other pro-life supporters have even a fraction of the dedication she has exhibited over a quarter-century, many lives will indeed be saved.