James Freeman Webb
Jesuit priest, community organizer, Canadian and Jamaican citizen. Born July 29, 1944, in Antigonish, N.S., died Aug. 9, 2012, in Pickering, Ont., of cancer, aged 68.
The bagpipes sounded in the church the day of Jim Webb’s funeral, but it might as readily have been reggae music.
Born in Antigonish, a graduate of St. Francis Xavier University, Jim was a committed justice seeker. In his DNA were the values of the Antigonish Movement, founded by Father Moses Coady in the 1930s, which held that co-operatives were the way to improve human life.
After ordination in 1973, Jim worked in Toronto at a furious pace, forming the independent newspaper Catholic New Times, working with the advocacy group Task Force of the Churches and Corporate Responsibility and co-founding the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice.
Genial but persistent, Jim would appear at corporate annual meetings and put hard questions to company directors, questions such as: “Why are you continuing to invest in apartheid South Africa?”
In 1986, there was a turning point. The Catholic archbishop of Kingston, Jamaica, asked Jim to begin work there.
He flourished in Jamaica, adding a soft lilt to his Scottish-Canadian accent, and signing his letters “with maximum respect.”
In inner-city Kingston, he lived the same austere life as his neighbours, sleeping on a mattress on the floor, and began his community work by putting a zinc roof on a local primary school.
During Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, zinc pieces from his roof flew around the yard “like tissue paper,” he said, but that did not deter his efforts to improve life for those in the poorest neighbourhoods of Kingston.
That same year, my husband John and I started to work with Jim through our Peterborough, Ont., aid agency Jamaican Self Help. For 22 years, Jim counselled us, educated our volunteers and recommended sound community projects for us to fund.
He was active in political work, speaking out against capital punishment, supporting women workers, forming a farmers’ co-operative and getting a truck for farmers to bring produce to market.
Jamaican elections had long been marred by violence. Jim helped form Citizens’ Action for Free and Fair Elections, a group whose volunteers sat at polling stations noting incidents of intimidation or the presence of guns.
He sought out strong Jamaican women to lead Jesuit schools in a social gospel direction. He once said to me, “We should have women Jesuits.”
He said mass on the beach and invited everyone.
There was a low time in 2001, when his colleague Martin Royackers, a young Jesuit from Strathroy, Ont., was shot and killed by an unknown assassin in the north coast village of Annotto Bay.
In 2008, Jim came home to Canada, having been elected to lead the English-speaking Jesuits here. He lived in St. James Town in Toronto, consistent to the end. Then he took sick and walked his last road with grace and humour.
Every so often, a remarkable cross-cultural Canadian appears on the scene to edify and amaze. Such was Jim Webb.
Rosemary Ganley is Jim’s friend.
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