By Sheila Phibbs
The Haldimand Press
CAYUGA—When reflecting on the life of the late Catherine Berry Stidsen of Cayuga, one particular word comes to mind: remarkable.
Well known in Haldimand as a passionate volunteer, Catherine was actually born and raised in Philadelphia. She attended Temple University, earning a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies while working part-time as a secondary school teacher. In 1969, she met and married Bent Stidsen. In a biography listing her accomplishments, she describes this as “the best thing that’s happened to me so far.” They moved to Canada two years later as Bent began his employment at McMaster University. Catherine taught at Cathedral Girls’ High School in Hamilton.
They purchased a property on Irish Line in Cayuga in 1973 and began building a home that would be known as “Oakwood”, finishing it when they moved there in 1977. Sadly, Bent passed away in March of 1981. Catherine stayed in Cayuga, teaching in Hamilton and working on her PhD in Religious Studies at McMaster, which she achieved in 1993.
Catherine was also committed to pursuing a dream she shared with Bent to support learning in developing countries. From 1986 to 1996, she worked to build and equip the Nagpur Learning Centre in India, which included a community computer assisted learning laboratory, reference library, reading and study room, and auditorium in Bent’s memory.
In 1996, Catherine retired to devote her time to the community of Cayuga. She served on the Brantwood Villa Board, Cayuga Chamber of Commerce, Haldimand Library Board, Cayuga Revitalization Committee, and Cayuga Revitalization Action Committee. She was Chair of the Haldimand Learning Centre and a founding member of CayugaFest.
An interest in Haldimand’s heritage prompted Catherine to accept the role of volunteer marketing coordinator for Cottonwood Mansion in 2005. Three years later, she became Co-Chair of Doors Open Haldimand. The highly successful event involved 149 volunteers in September 2009 and was recognized with the Haldimand County Festival Award that year.
CayugaFest, Cottonwood, and Doors Open gave Catherine the opportunity to work with Clayt Spears, and they shared both an interest in preserving local history and a friendship for almost five decades.
Spears recalls first meeting the Stidsens when they were clearing their land in Cayuga to build. He says, “My first reaction was one of amazement because what I witnessed were two obviously highly educated ‘city’ folks who appeared to be well out of their comfort zones.” He would come to realize his first assumptions of Catherine were false, especially when she immersed herself in the community.
Spears appreciated Catherine’s willingness to “come on board” when he approached her to assist with CayugaFest.
Catherine also contributed “Good News Stories” to The Haldimand Press, which Spears describes as “legendary”. When he approached her about Cottonwood he says, “She did so without hesitation and this involvement was an invaluable asset.”
Brittany Van Dalen, outgoing Museum Manager at Cottonwood, acknowledges that her experience with Catherine was limited but she recognizes her many contributions. She says, “She has been a main contributor … throughout the years by donating to various important things…. Her contributions to Cottonwood have been greatly appreciated.”
Spears contends, “The accolades about her life and past achievement are nothing short of mind boggling.”
This assessment is shared by Anne Vallentin of Cayuga, who enjoyed a long friendship and volunteer relationship with Catherine. Vallentin first met Catherine after marrying her husband Joe, as both Joe and Catherine attended St. Stephen’s parish and were good friends.
Vallentin says, “Catherine was involved with the Chamber of Commerce and I got involved. It was a wonderful time with the Chamber…. We worked on how to make the community grow in a vibrant and sustainable way.” She credits Catherine with helping to secure funding to start Halidmand Art Works and hire someone to manage it.
Vallentin appreciated the way Catherine embraced the community and the impact she had on others, including Vallentin’s family. She recalls, “Her interest and intelligence helped open our kids’ eyes to life beyond Cayuga.” She describes Catherine as grandmother-like to so many young people, encouraging and challenging them.
When Catherine had her mind set on something, she went with it. Vallentin says, “She believed that if we all shared 50% of what we have, the world would be a better place.” She followed a ‘do unto others…’ philosophy and Vallentin says, “She really helped us reflect on that at church.” If she didn’t agree with what she heard at church, Catherine would go home and write about it. Vallentin says, “I am so grateful that I knew her…. She inspired so many.”
Among the many students Catherine inspired is Dr. Richard Douglass-Chin, Associate Professor in the Department of English/Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Windsor. Douglass-Chin recalls sitting in Catherine’s Grade 9 World Religions class in 1973 as an “alienated, hostile, and surly teenager who sat alone at the back.” When he did not fit in with anyone for a group project, Douglass-Chin considered dropping the class. Instead, Catherine encouraged him to do his own project; that became his first independent research study.
Douglass-Chin reconnected with his teacher in his 50s and they would meet at Oakwood for tea. They discussed his work in social justice and she reminded him of his work as her student. He says, “It is because of her grace that a young black teenager in 1973 saw that someone important in the school system saw him.”
Beth Ann Hughes Rufo was in high school when a Sister who taught her and Catherine thought they might be friends: “We met for lunch in 1958 and were close friends to her death … and now in heaven.”
Rufo remembers when Catherine went to Rome for a three-month study with Movement for a Better World, which she told Rufo to do as well: “I did and it changed the direction of my life. Katie did that with people. She offered her insight, her truth, and it changed things.”
The pair remained friends after Catherine and Bent moved to Canada. Beth says, “We were friends via telephone and email…. The Catholic Church, which we both loved, believes in the Communion of Saints. Katie and I continue to be friends and ‘in touch’ that way now.”
Throughout her life, Catherine Berry Stidsen made an impact in her profession, her community, and in the lives of the people she encountered. She believed in inclusiveness, was generous with her time, and welcomed everyone. Vallentin says, “She was very progressive – way ahead of her time. I feel so honoured to have journeyed with her.”
Dr. Douglass-Chin adds, “Catherine Stidsen believed in people, in connection … in reaching across the lines of race, culture, and spiritual practice to nurture the deep relationality…. We need this kind of connection more than ever now in 2022. I have hope in it. This is because Catherine showed me that it is possible in the world.”
To read the ‘Musings’ of Catherine Berry Stidsen, see: