Remembering Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour

    With profound sadness, the faculty, staff, and students of St. Stephen’s College mourn the passing of Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour.

    By Frederick Tappenden on May 27, 2019

    With profound sadness and in celebration of her exceptional life, the faculty, staff, and students of St. Stephen’s College mourn the passing of Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour, chair of the St. Stephen’s Board of Governors.  Margaret-Ann passed peacefully this past weekend, at dawn, surround by friends and loved ones from her various communities.  

    The impact of Margaret-Ann upon St. Stephen’s College is indelible.  Her association with the College stretches back to 1986, when she first joined the Board of Governors.  Since that time, she served in various capacities on either the Board and/or the Senate, and since 2006 as Chair of the Board of Governors.  Over more than three decades of service, she has been both a fixture and a centerpiece in the life of the College.  Margaret-Ann always spoke of the College as a hidden gem, a diamond in the rough, often saying that one of her main goals was to help uncover and polish that diamond just a little bit more.  It is hard, now, to imagine St. Stephen’s without Margaret-Ann.  As I reflect on her passing, I cannot help but feel the College itself has lost a jewel of immeasurable beauty.

    Margaret-Ann possessed an incredible mixture of talents and personality.  On the one hand, her sweet kindness and compassion extended to all without prejudice.  For example, each year at convocation graduating students from St. Stephen’s were guaranteed three things: (1) their degree, (2) to be hooded, and (3) to receive a hug from Margaret-Ann.  At the same time, however, she possessed an ironclad will coupled with perennial optimism.  No challenge was too big for Margaret-Ann, and no hurdle could not be overcome.  She never backed away from an obstacle; rather, when faced with impossibility, she welcomed the opportunity to find novel and unimagined solutions.  For Margaret-Ann, creativity always triumphed in the face of impossibility.  It was precisely her stalwart disposition of iron-willed optimism which made her an exceptional leader and board chair at St. Stephen’s College. 

    Of course, Margaret-Ann is best known for her work outside of St. Stephen’s, which has been celebrated this past weekend by articles from the Edmonton Journal, the University of Alberta, and the University’s Faculty of Science.  Margaret-Ann studied first in Edinburgh before coming to the University of Alberta where she received a PhD in organic Chemistry (1970).  The vast majority of her career was here at the University, where she served as Assistant Chair for the Department of Chemistry (1979–2005) and then as the University’s first Associate Dean (Diversity) in the Faculty of Science (2005–2019).  In 2006, she was named to the Order of Canada; she is the recipient of seven honorary degrees from the University of Edinburgh, UBC, and others; she is a recipient of a Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case; and she was twice named one of the top 100 most powerful women in Canada.   

    Margaret-Ann is best known for her tireless work of promoting women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics: the “STEM” disciplines.  This was her life’s work, and it occupied her attention since 1981 when she was one of a handful of Canadians who began investigating the low numbers of women in the STEM fields.  Running parallel to this life’s work—and I suspect interwoven in ways that only Margaret-Ann could have articulated—are her years of service to St. Stephen’s, years which began (in the mid-1980s) not long after that 1981 investigation.  I find it curious that, as Margaret-Ann poured so much of herself into diversifying the STEM fields, she simultaneously was pouring so much of herself into the leadership of a small multi-faith college that seeks to enrich the spiritual and intellectual capacities of its students through training in theology, arts, and counselling therapies. Her more than 30+ years of service to St. Stephen’s indicates that she had a full and complete educational vision, one that was not confined only to STEM but which more broadly embraced STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics.  Margaret-Ann understood, clearer than most, that the nurturing of one’s intellect requires also the nurturing of one spirit; that the aptitude of the human being to solve complex, impossible problems is expanded when one’s imagination is cultivated through the creativity that comes from reaching for that which lies beyond ourselves (what is often called the sacred).  Margaret-Ann was a person of Spirit in every way, and she embodied a vision of education that attended to the formation of the whole person: body, mind, and spirit.

    Of course, Margaret-Ann’s work was not just about STEM, but specifically about women in STEM.  Here too, her leadership in the public sphere was contagious at St. Stephen’s. Like the STEM disciplines, the world of theological education is dominated by male personalities. Yet, despite this fact, St. Stephen’s currently employs women at a rate of 8 to 1 in its core faculty and staff! Since the early 1980s, feminist perspectives and theology have been a mainstay at St. Stephen’s, and some of our most faithful supporters are the many United Church Women’s groups from across the province.  It should come as no surprise that all of this has happened during Margaret-Ann’s years at the College.  In many ways, the history of St. Stephen’s is a history of spiritually-informed women seeking to challenge and to transform the religious institutions in which they grew. Margaret-Ann was one such woman, a true dynamo whose leadership opened opportunities for women across the breadth of STEAM fields. 

    At St. Stephen’s we speak a lot about spirituality.  We encourage our students to delve deep into their own worldviews and traditions, not only to better understand themselves but also to be better caregivers and ministers in their fields of practice.  About a year ago, Margaret-Ann shared with me a definition of spirituality that particularly resonated with her: “[Spirituality is] the deeply held belief that we are inextricably connected to each other by something greater than us and something that is rooted in love and compassion. … it cannot be severed, but it can be forgotten” (Brené Brown).  May the love and compassion that tied Margaret-Ann so tightly to the lives of many continue to do so now after her passing; may that vision of Spirit that she so clearly embodied never be forgotten; and may the memory of Margaret-Ann never be severed from the people and the causes that she championed throughout her life.  

    Fred Tappenden
    Principal and Dean
    St. Stephen's College, at the University of Alberta