Joanne Dieleman, experienced co-ordinator of the pro-life coffee house “The Way Inn,” adjacent to the Morgentaler abortuary in downtown Toronto, is an extraordinary mother o many: eight children (two adopted), five grandchildren and 249 foster children.  As well, she mothers picketers, distressed pregnant women and their mates and any others who step in to The Way Inn.  As one picketer said, “She exemplifies all that the pro-life movement stands for.”  To talk about Joanne is to talk about life and love.

In 1970, Joanne faced a surprising test for what it is to be pro-life.  While expecting her fifth child, she contracted German measles.  A Dutch midwife, she understood too well the implications; so she went to her female physician, who ordered her to hospital the next day.  Expecting a battery of tests, Joanne discovered she was scheduled for an abortion.  She walked out.  Returning to her physician, she cunningly asked, “will we be able to see if the baby is handicapped when he or she is born?”  The physician answered a reassuring “Yes.”  So Joanne suggested, “Well, let’s wait then until after the birth to kill him or her.”  Abruptly the discussion ended.  Later, her baby, Albert, was born healthy and normal.  He is now eighteen and six foot three.

Son’s accident

On the night before Mother’s Day, 1987, Joanne’s phone rang, shattering her sleep and that of her husband, Adrian.  The call from a doctor in Huntsville, Ontario informed them that their oldest son, Adrian Jr., then 23, had been in a serious car accident and was being flown to Toronto for treatment.  So began a most painful chapter in their lives, but one that has borne remarkable results.

Adrian’s traumatic treatment for a broken neck and his trying convalescence in hospital lasted a year and a half.  Today, although he is in a wheelchair with only partial movement in both arms, Adrian’s spirit is indomitable.  Back at university, studying business, he now drives his own specially adapted van made available to him by friends and the government.  He is blessed with a wide circle of friends who include him in all their social activities.

Typical of Joanne, she sees only the good things that followed the accident.  When asked how she and her husband reacted at the beginning, Joanne replied, “We couldn’t think of ourselves.  We could only think of Adrian and so we emphasized the good things and told him, ‘We’re so glad you’re alive; so glad no one was killed.’”

She recalls first arriving at Adrian’s bedside with her husband.  Adrian looked at his mother and quickly, before the doctor could speak teased, “Doctor, what is your name?  What is your stand on abortion?”  And so with the tension broken, the tone was set for recovery.  Adrian’s impish humour and incredible grit would carry him through.  He became a “star patient.”  One doctor, who advised his parents to bring in his friends, later recanted and pleaded for a limit on visitors, mumbling, “I didn’t know the kid knew the whole of Toronto!”

Yet there were many dark moments along the way while Adrian learned to care for himself, ingeniously inventing techniques that astonish the imagination.  For example, Joanne remembers his calling her at 2:00 a.m. anguished because he couldn’t blow his nose or scratch his head.  Quietly, she would comfort him and pray with him, and then she, alternating with her husband, would scurry to the hospital very early in the morning and stay until the others came.  Joanne helped him solve continual practical problems such as losing an irretrievable bar of soap in the shower by simply equipping him with four bars instead of one.  And there were innumerable other obstacles known only to one whose limbs won’t co-operate with the will.  Unflinchingly, she addressed each, one at a time, until a solution was found and Adrian could cope independently.

Stoically and with deep faith, Joanne and her husband look ahead.  Their belief is that those who love Adrian will do good for him and for themselves, and they will be touched by his accident for the better.  In this family, a zest for life and an indomitable spirit stream from one generation to the next.

Mother to many

Joanne was born a half a century ago in Holland and raised during its war-torn occupation by the Germans who turned her school into soldiers’ barracks for a few years.  Her small home town was near a ship-building yard and was a special target for bombing by the Allies.  Life was difficult, uncertain and often chaotic.  Her family survived, except for an uncle who was shot for harbouring Jews, and her grandfather, who was killed in action early in the war before the fall of Rotterdam and capitulation to the Nazis.

After the war, schools re-opened and Joanne finished high school and trained as a nurse and midwife.  She met her future husband, Adrian, as he was planning to emigrate to Canada.  He went first and she followed.  Despite plans to wait, save and marry later, romance won out and they married, penniless.  After a few years in London, Ontario, where Adrian worked as a mechanic and she as a nurse, they moved to Toronto with their growing family.

After their fourth baby arrived, Joanne, now happily tied to a home, decided to take in foster children.  Over a period of twenty-one years, she and her husband have had 249 foster children in their home (including several handicapped ones).  They adopted Jack, a spina bifida baby, now sixteen years old.  Confined to a wheelchair, but otherwise fine, Jack has taught Adrian how to race and lock wheels in their wheelchairs – a favourite sport in the Dieleman house.  Another child, Paul, aged 19, has impaired learning ability.  Although he is not legally adoptable, the Dieleman family regards him as their own.  One time when the Dielemans were preparing for a family portrait, Joanne and her husband suggested that probably the foster children should be photographed separately.  A howl of protest arose from the natural children, and so one group photograph was taken.  Apparently the children made no distinction among themselves.  They were one family.

During her years as a foster mother, Joanne ran an emergency crisis centre which meant she could (and did) receive children in crisis at any hour or the day or night.  Often she would have one or two “borrowed children” in addition to her own eight.

Eventually, as her children grew, she found herself doing community work, such as working for the Heart Fund, at the library, or for the Christian Action Council.  This led to volunteering in the office of a new pro-life group, Campaign Life.  She loved the cause but wanted a more active role.  So when Reverend Ken Campbell, founder of Choose Life Canada, opened The Way Inn next to Morgentaler’s abortuary, in 1985, and asked her to co-ordinate and be hostess for it, she accepted.  She had found her niche.

Volunteer ministry

At The Way Inn, Joanne oversees its general operation, including the worry of meeting the $1,500 monthly rent.  She is unperturbed, relying on faith to pay the bills.  It works.  One week she wondered if she’d make it as she had only $800 and only a few days left.  The next day a cheque for $500 arrived from Niagara Falls.  The day I spoke to her, she and Adrian Sr. were leaving for a week’s Caribbean cruise – her husband’s Valentine gift – so she had to pay the rent in advance.  Amazingly, she had accumulated it in advance.

Joanne says she follows God’s agenda at the Inn.  She used to organize volunteers but that didn’t work.  Once she read that Mother Teresa has no agenda and never knows where she’ll be the next day.  Joanne feels the same way; she may be inside, quiet all day, or busy accommodating people who have questions, or counseling a dubious woman or man, or picketing out front, or witnessing at the back.  She is there three days a week.  Mr. Campbell remembers that even during he son’s accident, “She didn’t break rank through that terrific pressure.  She maintained her presence on Harbord Street.”

Clearly, Joanne sees her presence as a witness for the unborn at the Inn “as a ministry for Christ.”  She sees her job as a reasonable, quiet approach to meeting the needs of troubled pregnant women, picketers, the media, students and others searching for information.  She finds many opportunities for helping people and feels her non-confrontational approach is effective.  She used to have doubts about picketing and coming to the Inn, but she says, “I feel good about it now.”  So do many others.

Joanne is full of delightful anecdotes about happenings and people around the abortuary.  For example, during one Operation Rescue, she was arrested and put in a paddy wagon, only to turn around and find herself beside her son-in-law, who welcomed her aboard.  He had curled up his six-foot-eight-inch frame to make room for her.  Meanwhile, his wife, Joanne’s daughter, was expecting a fourth child at any moment.  Yet another time during Operation Rescue, Joanne, along with her protesters in a crawling position, found herself looking up to a long pair of gray trousers, from which a voice descended, “What are you doing here?”  She replied, “I’m trying to save babies because if they don’t stop this killing, look, my son (showing him a picture of her son in a wheelchair) will be next.”  Stunned, the voice said, “Oh no, dear, that will never happen.”  She later found out the voice belonged to Toronto Police Superintendent Getty, who told the newspapers that “These people are not violent and its often good to talk to them.”  There are many stories about the people Joanne encounters.  One concerns a beautiful young woman from a mid-Eastern country and her escort who entered and later left the abortuary, saying, “It’s like a morgue in there.”  They accepted help from counselors at the back.  Later, they married, asking Joanne to be a witness and called their infant son “Shian” meaning “deserving.”  They also told her that had it not been for her intervention, they would not have a son.

Then there was Jo-Anne, who listened to a counselor at the back and later disappeared.  Several months later, by sheer coincidence, the same counselor, Bob, ran into her in a variety store.  He asked her what happened and she replied, “Oh, I’m going to have my baby.”  Joanne can tell many other life-affirming stories.

Finest tribute

Reverend Ken Campbell says of Joanne, “She has a good balance between being hardheaded and tenderhearted in handling all that goes on at the Inn.  She has all the qualities for that ministry in abundance and couldn’t be more invested in the ministry in the name of Christ.”

He believes that The Way Inn, which is a civilized alternative, in the name of Christ, to the life-denying philosophy next door at the abortuary, is epitomized by Joanne who demonstrates the opposite to that killing philosophy with “her milk of human kindness and her universal rather than selective love.”

To an extraordinary mother, Happy Mother’s Day.