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Doryne Therese Adele Kirby

Radio City Rockette, nun, teacher, social justice advocate. Born on Jan. 28, 1928, in Toronto; died on Feb. 19, 2016, of cancer, aged 88.

Doryne grew up in Toronto, the youngest of seven children in a devout Irish Catholic family. She took dance lessons from an early age and in the 1940s, while staying with one of her brothers in New York, she joined the Radio City Rockettes. Though she rarely talked about her experiences as a part of the famed dance troupe, she once explained why she chose another path in life: "I have dancing in my genes, but I wondered how I would live out a life of love, and how God would fit into that life. I wanted my life to be significant."

Doryne returned to Toronto in her early 20s, entered the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (commonly known as the Loretto Sisters) in 1951, and became a nun, with a focus on teaching. She obtained her bachelor of arts, a certificate in education, two master's degrees in theology, and studied French at the Sorbonne in Paris.

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She taught at elementary and high schools in Port Colborne, Stratford (where she was also principal of the Loretto Academy), Guelph and Toronto. Known as Mother Alexia to her students, she once said: "I was a strict teacher because I loved my students. I wanted them to learn."

In the mid-1980s, she left teaching and devoted her next 30 years to social, economic, and human rights issues. From championing solidarity with the poor in El Salvador to challenging female genital mutilation in Kenya, her passion for working for social justice was, like dancing, in her genes. She travelled extensively, usually with other Loretto Sisters, which she loved.

Her career highlight was her two-year term at the United Nations, from 2003 to 2005, as a representative for the Loretto Sisters, part of a non-governmental group of religious congregations. She loved New York, and the UN. She once barged through security officials and a herd of reporters outside the General Assembly chamber to welcome the new secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, and shake his hand. Afterward, she wondered, "Jeepers! Whatever made me do that?"

Sister Evanne Hunter taught with Sister Doryne and knew her well. "Sometimes she was like the playful child just doing things for the sheer delight of it," she recalled. "Sometimes she was like the rebellious teenager wanting to get a rise out of people. Sometimes she was like a prophet badgering us to wake up, speak up, stand up for justice. Sister Doryne was a rabble-rouser. Once she had a cause, she never stopped …"

At family events, she was Aunt Doryne, who would sashay into the room, singing one of her favourite Broadway numbers. Dressed in colourful outfits that complemented her fire-red hair, she would circle the room with hugs and kisses for everyone. "Are we having fun yet?" she would ask. One minute, you would see her rockin' the dance floor, and the next, soothing a restless baby with a lullaby.

When her lengthy dinner graces met with appeals from some family members to "Wrap it up, Doryne!" she was unfazed and simply continued her passionate blessing at a slightly quicker pace. When she was on a mission, she delivered her message her way. Doryne was the go-to person for family history, contacts and updates, which she published in her annual Christmas "Kirby Kin" e-mail message to relatives.

"I live in blessedness," she said on the day she was diagnosed with cancer. "I've had a great life."

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Karen Hunter is Doryne's niece by marriage.

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