I was thinking over the Easter weekend of Father Bob Ogle, my late friend and political mentor. It was in April 1998 that he died at age 69 after more than a decade of serious illness. I wrote a brief piece about him for the Lives Lived section of the Globe and Mail and the article appeared in the newspaper on May 25, 1998. I am reproducing it here.
Father Bob Ogle. Priest, missionary, author, Member of Parliament. Born on Dec. 24, 1928 in Rosetown, Sask. Died of cancer in Saskatoon, April 1, 1998, aged 69.
Father Bob, as he was commonly called, was a renaissance man, if one may so describe a Catholic priest. He was raised on a poor farm during the Great Depression in a devout Irish Catholic family. He studied for the priesthood in London, Ontario, then returned to Saskatoon where he became an energetic parish priest and seminary rector.
Missionary in Brazil
Bob was a man of great energy and no small ego. He wanted to make a difference. In 1964, he volunteered as one of the founding members of a diocesan mission team sent to northeast Brazil. It was his first great Projecto Roberto.
He engaged in pastoral work, organized literacy activities, farming co-operatives and medical programs. In 1969 he co-ordinated a relief operation and house building program following disastrous floods near the mission.
Restless in Saskatoon
He returned to Saskatoon in 1970 and was installed in one of the city’s largest parishes. He was good at it, especially at getting people involved in projects, but he was restless.
In 1976, he took a sabbatical and travelled the world investigating international development projects. When he got home he wrote a book about it called When the Snake Bites the Sun.
The very night when he delivered the manuscript in September 1977 Bob received a call from a member of the NDP constituency organization for Saskatoon East, asking him to consider becoming a candidate in the next federal election.
He had never belonged to a political party, but he was ready for something big. He consulted with his bishop, with other priests, parishioners, friends, and even Otto Lang, the Liberal incumbent.
Eventually Bob decided to do it, and it was there that the Ogle legend really began to take shape. He was a creative campaigner. While Lang, then Transport Minister, travelled frequently on government jets, Father Bob, the missionary back from Brazil, rode around Saskatoon on a bicycle to do his canvassing.
It was at about that time that I first met Bob, and I recall him saying that Lang couldn’t win. Bob knocked every door in the riding, many of them more than once, and he used a low key, one might say pastoral, approach, asking people about themselves rather than telling them what to think or how to vote.
He did beat Otto Lang in 1979, entering the NDP caucus during the minority government of Joe Clark, and he won again in 1980. He served as health critic, and later as the critic for CIDA.
His own man
Bob steadfastly refused to follow his party’s position on abortion, explaining on the night of his nomination, “I believe that all human rights are of a piece: Ignore one right and you jeopardize all the others . . . If we are really pro-life. we have to protect human life from conception through death.”
Member of Parliament
Bob loved being an MP, and he approached that work on a pastoral basis as well, generally keeping a promise never to make personal attacks on political opponents.
By 1984 the Vatican had decided that parliament was no place for a priest, and Bob was ordered not to run again. He agonized over the order, but in the end decided to obey and he did not stand for re-election.
Bob was constantly ill during the last 14 years of life. Even before he left politics in 1984 he was suffering from serious headaches, and he developed a bleeding ulcer. About a year later he suffered a heart attack, and eventually he was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumour.
Those who knew him well said that his Job-like plague of afflictions often left him near despair, but he was a tenacious man who loved life and refused to give up. In these years he wrote three books, initiated a project called Broadcasting for International Understanding, and hosted a retreat series on television. He always had at least one Project Roberto to keep him (and his friends) going, and he never completely lost his sense of humour.
I was asked in 1996 to seek a political nomination for the NDP in Saskatoon-Humboldt, which contained a good portion of Bob’s old riding. When I went to tell him about it, he was supportive and enthusiastic, so I asked for his best advice.
“Do it,” he said, “but remember two things.” I was primed for profundity.
“When you’re canvassing, never walk on anybody’s grass,” he said. “And if they have a dog, tell them it’s a nice dog, even if you don’t like dogs.”
He came to meetings of the small group working toward the nomination, and although he had virtually to be carried up the front steps, he was one of the most creative people in the room.
His health continued to decline, and when we had a testimonial dinner for him in May 1997, just a few days before the federal election in that year, he could not rise from his wheelchair.
Now, less than a year later he is gone, but not forgotten.
Post script — Mary Lou Ogle
Any mention of Bob Ogle’s good work must also contain reference to his sister Mary Lou. A nurse by profession, she moved home to Saskatchewan from Alberta to work with her brother when he was elected to the House of Commons in 1979. She served as his office manager in Saskatoon and later as his administrative assistant in his Parliament Hill office in Ottawa. After he was forced to resign, she continued to work with him on a variety of books and television projects. She was also a dedicated community volunteer in Saskatoon. Mary Lou died in June 2006.
I did not know Bob Ogle well, but his life intersected with mine in a number of ways over many years. I entered the seminary in Saskatoon a year after Bob left his position as rector to serve as a missionary in Brazil. Older seminarians suggested I was lucky, as apparently he was something of a disciplinarian–at least, that’s what some alumni said at a St. Pius X reunion in the late 1990s. Bob was to attend that reunion–in fact he was one of the instigators and his primitive use of email to round up alumni was fascinating in and of itself. In one of his emails, I recall an email to me in which he said that he thought email was magical, and eschewing the technical description of how it worked, he said he preferred to believe it was delivered by the Easter Bunny.
In Bob’s time as rector (I think he was actually the first rector), the seminary was located in a large house on Clarence Avenue near 25th St. (That building is now a Ronald MacDonald House, I believe). We moved into the new location near the old ski jump on the U of S campus in 1966, and I understand SPX has since been renamed Ogle Hall, which I think is fitting.
The seat Bob took in Ottawa was one that I had previously helped fill with Otto Lang (no relation), when I was a young Trudeaumaniac like many of my friends in 1968. Otto had been dean of law at the U of S, and it is likely that he sat through at least one or two of Bob’s sermons at some point, which is likely the only time in history when a future outgoing MP received spiritual guidance from the MP who would eventually unseat him.
Bob was unique. We could stand another Bob Ogle in this country, especially in these politically dark days.
Shortly before his death, Bob was organizing formation sessions in video filming for people working in international development. He insisted that we knew stories that journalists would never catch and that if we filmed well, they could be used here to make people aware. I was working wth the Canadian Religious Conference at the time and used what he offered to prepare a number of fairly rudimentary videos of events. I will always remember him as someone who knew exactly where to put the energy.
Dennis replies: Thaks Richard and to Jim Lang too. I would be pleased to receive Bob Ogle stories from other readers as well.
Thank you for re-posting your personal memories of Father Bob. It’s a most inspiring life you remember. A loss to Canada that the Pope forbade him from running for a second term.
Thanks, Dennis, for republishing this “Lives Lived” column on Bob Ogle. It was my privilege to have known Fr. Bob and worked with him, albeit for rather a short period towards the end of his life. I greatly admired his transcendent courage in the face of so many adversities while pursuing his projects, Broadcasting for International Understanding among others. I first came to know Bob, though less well, during his years of service as a Member of Parliament. He actually accomplished a great deal in getting his kind of issues onto the public agenda through parliamentary committees, often in the face of considerable resistance. He was an inspiration to us all.