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Remembering a beloved teacher who enriched the lives of so many

'Her community was very much linked to the school community, the church community and her friends,' says Josée Lapierre's husband

Friends and family who knew former teacher Josée Lapierre said she has helped shape the lives of many people, in the classroom and beyond.

Josée, who had lived in Guelph and Wellington County for over 30 years and taught at the Guelph French school Elementary School Catholic Saint-René-Goupil, passed away at Hospice Wellington in August following a long battle with cancer. She was 65.

When former students heard of her passing, many reached out to express their condolences.

“I remember the names of the students and I remember teaching them, they were in our first or second year class,” said Stephanie Cantin, a former colleague and friend of Josée, who was with her during her final days.

“One student who had a learning disability and Josée spent a lot of time with her and the student went on to graduate university.

"She wouldn’t accept limits for her students, she would do what she had to do."

Born in Longueuil, Quebec, Josée was a proud Franco-Ontarian who was very engaged in fostering the French language within the school system and taught within the French Catholic School Board for about 20 years, starting her career in 1984.

“Her love of science from undergraduate and graduate degrees, and her faith values, became part of her everyday professional life,” said Clarence Swanton, Josée’s husband of 35 years who mentions she taught science and religion. “She brought a lot of kindness and love and support to her students."

Swanton recalls first meeting Josée at the University of Western Ontario while she was pursuing her masters degree in plant ecology. 

“I was doing a PhD at the time, and my first encounter was that I had to speak with her supervisor," said Swanton, “and I went into the lab and it ended that I asked her where her supervisor was, and at the end I remarked to myself how beautiful her eyes were.

“It was her eyes that first caught my attention, their shininess, their glow …. They were very beautiful eyes and that was my first notice of this graduate student."

When they began dating, Swanton said he admired her love of science, love of her faith and her personal values. Josée also loved plants, animals, the environment and was especially drawn to Lake Huron, where the couple eventually built a cottage on the lake in Tobermory.

In December 1985, the couple moved to the Royal City after getting jobs. They married in the spring of 1986 and settled into a home in Rockwood.

“It was a good marriage, we were a natural fit,” said Swanton.

While in Rockwood, the couple adopted three daughters named Ana, Stephanie and Lesley-Ann. All of the adoptions were international, from Nicauragua, Nepal and Guatemala. The family lived in Rockwood for 20 years before moving to a farm property behind Guelph Lake in 2007.

"It was a big change, and a wonderful change, and she was excited about the opportunity," said Swanton, who still lives there.

He also notes Josée’s life was split into three focuses: teaching, faith and friends.

“Her community was very much linked to the school community, the church community and her friends,” he said. “There were three dynamics there where she was very active in it.”

Cantin first met Josée in 2000 and became very close. The two taught a split Grade 7/8 class for four years before both went on to teach different classes at École secondaire Catholique Père-René-de-Galinée. She recalls Josée having the ability to break down complex information into simple explanations for her Grade 8 students.

“She is able to take complicated questions or concepts in terms of faith, and explain them in simple terms that make sense," said Cantin. "If Josée was speaking, she would say, ‘It was the Holy Spirit.’

“It’s not easy talking about faith with Grade 8 students. To talk about faith and religion to Grade 8 students and have them listen is a real accomplishment.”

Besides being an excellent teacher, Josée helped students prepare for confirmation, an affirmation of belief and religious milestone within the Catholic church.

“She always did a confirmation binder with the students, where they prepared a binder full of memories and letters in preparation for their confirmation, and I’m sure there are many who would say, ‘Oh my gosh, Madame Josée! I still have that binder!’”

While Josée was highly religious, Cantin said she never pushed her beliefs onto anyone in a disrespectful or pushy way, instead including people in conversations about religion.

“She had a lot of respect for people and their decisions and their choices, she was not judgmental.”

As a woman of profound faith, Josée brought the same energy she had for teaching into planning and organizing into a youth program called The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and the Mouvement Des Cursillos Francophones du Canada.

Mouvement Des Cursillos is a three-day weekend retreat which aims to help adults better understand themselves, their neighbour and God. Claude Charpentier said he and Josée worked together for four years as co-leaders to put together this event for Catholic Francophones living across the province.

“She was a person who was a very good listener, a person who would do anything to help out, she was a super organizer, very energetic and was very good simplifying very complicated things,” he said about Josée.

“It was really something else to work with her in that sense to plan together and to see how people would look up to Josée for advice. I’m sure a lot of people probably confided in her, and she’s obviously the type whatever somebody told her remained confidential.”

Cantin adds Josée was a great friend and an inspiration to her students, especially when participating in Relay for Life. Several years ago, Josée had been diagnosed with cancer and beat it once before it returned.

When the cancer returned, Swanton said it came back with a vengeance.

“It progressed quite rapidly toward the end of her life," he said, “and at one point during her treatments, she decided the treatments were too harmful and that quality of life was not what she wanted, and decided to stop the treatments, knowing quite well what that means, and lived her life full or energy.

“It was a very strong and very brave decision to let go and that is a reflection of her inner strength and inner faith as well.”

Josée retired from teaching in 2013 at the age of 56. Cantin recalls all the Grade 8 classes hosting a party, and all 80 students that year gave Josée a hug good-bye.

“I specifically remember being very frustrated her because I think she did retire a year early and I felt like I didn’t want her to leave the school, and that it was too soon," said Cantin. "And clearly it was not. She knew what she was doing.”

Looking back at his time with Josée, Swanton said he will always remember her unconditional love for not only her family and friends.

“Her unconditional love, not only for her family, but her friends and how she was always there in terms of kindness, and support and understanding, it clearly stands out as one of her unique characteristics,” said Swanton.

“It was a big loss, I lost my anchor.”