Tony Blair adds tribute to Ellen Aitken

The Tony Blair Faith Foundation has added its own tribute to the late Ellen Aitken, McGill’s Dean of the Faculty of Religious Studies, who died early Saturday morning. "Ellen was an outstanding academic but also a lovely, warm and generous spirited person with a huge heart as well as an exceptional mind," former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said.
Ellen Aitken and former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair at a 2009 press conference announcing McGill's partnership with the Tony Blair Foundation. / Photo: Jerry Domian courtesy of Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
Ellen Aitken and former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair at a 2009 press conference announcing McGill’s partnership with the Tony Blair Foundation. / Photo: Jerry Domian courtesy of Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

By Doug Sweet

The Tony Blair Faith Foundation has added its own tribute to the late Ellen Aitken, McGill’s Dean of the Faculty of Religious Studies, who died early Saturday morning following a short battle with what turned out to be a very aggressive form of cancer.

Her death had come as a shock, given that only about a month ago she had confided to colleagues, in a brave and optimistic note, that she would have to take some leave because of her illness.

Prof. Aitken had been instrumental in having McGill join former British prime minister Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation and Globalization Network, a worldwide organization dedicated to research into the importance and impact of religion in public events and discourse.

“Ellen was an outstanding academic but also a lovely, warm and generous spirited person with a huge heart as well as an exceptional mind,” Blair said. “We enjoyed immensely our collaboration together. I am very sad.”

The online tribute, which can be read here, noted that Prof. Aitken “ensured that McGill became a leading international university in this field both through the pursuit of the academic course, as well using her enormous entrepreneurial spirit to reach beyond the academy into the public policy realm.”

Funeral services will be held Wednesday, June 18, at 10:30 a.m. at St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church, 137 President Kennedy Ave. (the red-roofed church near Place des Arts). A reception will follow in the church hall.

Prof. Aitken, who was only 53, had been a member of the Faculty since 2004, teaching Early Christian History and Literature. Before coming to McGill, she was at Harvard University, where she served on the faculty of the Divinity School and won an award for teaching. She held degrees from Harvard and the University of the South.

She spoke Ancient Greek and was proficient in Latin, Hebrew, Coptic and German. She also had a reading knowledge of French, Spanish and Italian.

At McGill, where she also was honoured for teaching excellence, Prof. Aitken was a member of McGill’s Centre for Research on Religion (CREOR). She had been appointed Dean of the Faculty in 2007.

Prof. Aitken is survived by her husband, renowned organist William Porter, who teaches at McGill and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.

Ellen Aitken had been a member of the Faculty since 2004, teaching Early Christian History and Literature. Before coming to McGill, she was at Harvard University, where she served on the faculty of the Divinity School. / Photo: Owen Egan
Ellen Aitken had been a member of the Faculty since 2004, teaching Early Christian History and Literature. Before coming to McGill, she was at Harvard University, where she served on the faculty of the Divinity School. / Photo: Owen Egan

An ordained Anglican Church/Episcopalian Minister, Prof. Aitken was an active participant in University life and in trying to involve the broader community in discussions about a wide variety of subjects touching on faith and religion.

Unsurprisingly, heartfelt tributes from colleagues were plentiful, and many noted the grace with which she faced her recent ordeal.

“Ellen was a valued colleague, a world renowned scholar, a great ambassador for McGill, and a wonderful human being,” said Provost Anthony C. Masi. “I feel fortunate to have worked with her and to have benefitted from her wise counsel. Her eloquence, her commitment, and her kind manner and cheerful smile made a real difference at our University and she will be sincerely missed.”

Prof. Douglas Farrow of the Faculty of Religious Studies said, “Dean Aitken’s sudden illness and death has left our community in deep sorrow. Her husband, Bill, is very much in our thoughts and prayers also.

“The two of them were amazingly gracious in allowing us to share in their final weeks together, and there was a tremendous outpouring of love and concern for Ellen from at home and abroad. She was marked by faith and peace and good courage throughout the entire ordeal. What she was when she was with us – a person of great integrity, patience, wisdom, and compassion – she remained to the end. We have lost a good friend as well as one of the Faculty’s, and indeed the University’s, finest and most dedicated leaders. We all feel very much in her debt, and our shock and sorrow are mixed with gratitude for all she did for us.”

Rev. Phillip Joudrey, Principal of the United Theological College wrote to colleagues Saturday that during her illness, “Ellen maintained a blog to keep friends in many parts of the world up to date. Through it she communicated incredible strength and a deep capacity for embracing faith. Her gracious response to the outpouring of love that she received will long remain with us.

“At the United Theological College and the Montreal School of Theology we are saddened beyond words.”

Added Dean of Arts Christopher Manfredi: “Ellen was a wonderful decanal colleague, profoundly committed to the university and serious scholarship. She was also a woman of deep and inspiring faith. Her students and colleagues will miss her tremendously.”

A close colleague, Daniel Cere, Associate Professor of Religion, Ethics and Law, also lamented Prof. Aitken’s passing.

“The news of Ellen Aitken’s death is heartbreaking. She has been a friend, teacher, and leader for many students, faculty, and staff,” Prof. Cere said. “I had the privilege of working closely with Dean Aitken in the ambitious Religion and Globalization initiative that she spearheaded. She brought to her tenure as Dean a dedicated, caring and visionary leadership that has transformed the Faculty, and personally touched many lives.

“When it was revealed that Ellen was facing a shockingly aggressive form of cancer, she encountered this trauma with the grace, friendship, and faith that characterized her life and work. Her academic and faith journey brought together a remarkably diverse community of friends and colleagues across so many religious and disciplinary divides. She continued to draw us together and care for us even in her dying, welcoming us into her struggle, sharing her heart with us. May we find pathways to honour the grace-filled life, dedication and service that Ellen shared so freely with us.”

Finally, an anonymous poster to the Rate My Prof website had this to say about Prof. Aitken in 2007:

“If I ever become a professor, this is the kind I want to be. Professional, brilliant, humble, helpful, kind, challenging … this is the perfect prof.”



Comments on “Tony Blair adds tribute to Ellen Aitken”

  • Avatar
    Joan Rasch

    I was very pleased to see this tribute. I knew Ellen as an associate priest at St John the Evangelist Church in Boston, MA. and as an associate of the Society of St John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA.
    The writer of this piece has done a fine job describing the wonderful priest I remember. Her real gift was to integrate the work of a scholar with the work of being an assisting priest of a parish.
    Joan Rasch
    Somerville, MA USA

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    I just got this shocking news about Dean Aitken’s sudden passing away. She brought so many good moments in our life, and it’s hard to believe that she will not be with us anymore, only a month after our last meeting with her here at the Faculty of Religious Studies… My thoughts are now with her husband Mr. William Porter and all the family. With my deepest sympathies, Alex Sokolov.

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    Sheena Melwani

    Very shocked to see this news when it was first posted on the Alum Page for the Faculty of Religious Studies on Facebook. Dean Aitken was a wonderful woman and although I never had her as a prof, she knew many of the students in the faculty, myself included. She helped connect me to the Tony Blair Faith Foundation where I subsequently had the privilege of doing some excellent work. She was caring, helpful, and a calm presence around the faculty and I am saddened to know that I will no longer be able to visit her when I return back to visit McGill.

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    Hugh Creighon

    Deepest sympathy to the Porter family on Ellen’s death.
    Hugh Creighton

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    The rate my prof mention at the end was unbelievably tacky.

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    ELlen Aitken was my advisor in Harvard. I have much respect for her. I am shocked of the news of her death. Praying for those grieving.

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    The Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton

    It is with a heavy heart but also a sense of thanksgiving that on this occasion of the death of Dean Ellen Aitken, I write in thanksgiving for her life and ministry. I had the privilege of knowing Ellen in two major capacities, as the dean and mentor for my daughter, Hilary Keachie, and as a colleague in the bringing together of last year’s conference ‘Bridging the Secular Divide’. In the first capacity, she was inspiring and challenging as Hilary pursued a degree in world religions at the Faculty of Religion at McGill. She also very much celebrated with us as Hilary won scholarships and ultimately the Birks’ prize for the top marks in her graduating year. In the second capacity, Ellen was not only creative and very organized but an incredible visionary as we put together a conference that continues still to bridge the gulf between faith and our secular society, that continues to encourage dialogue and engagement by all.
    Ellen will be much missed by the individual students whose lives she transformed and by those who had the privilege of working with her for the good of all people of this country.
    Our best tribute is to continue the work that she has set out and to do it with her imagination and faith.

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    Robert Di Pede

    Ellen was an immensely intelligent and extremely gracious person. These two qualities are rare in general, let alone as a pair. She is irreplaceable and will be missed. My thoughts and prayers are with her family, friends and colleagues.

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    sr. Lucy Thorson (sister of Sion)

    I had the privilege of briefly meeting Ellen on one occasion when the CCJC (Canadian Christian Jewish Consultation) met in McGill University for a gathering.
    Ellen was so open, so very gracious and offered us such warm, generous hospitality.
    My thoughts and prayers are with her family, friends and many colleagues.
    What a powerful witness of scholarship and loving kindness Ellen leaves with us.

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    I am shocked and saddened to hear the news of Dean Aitkin’s passing away. I met Ellen for the first time in 2012 (and then in 2013) at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation’s International Day. I had the pleasure of spending two weeks with her teaching at the McGill Masters unit on Religion and Globalization. She had the ability to win you with her deeply spiritual approach to life, her humbleness despite her incredible intellect, and a caring attitude for all. I feel as if I have lost a friend I had known for years.
    Words are absent from my vocabulary that would express the sadness at the loss of such a wonderful soul from this world. May she always reside in the best place there is in the world we know so little of.
    And sincere condolences to the Porter Family, and all her colleagues and students. If I feel so devastated, I wonder those who spent longer time with her must be feeling.

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    This news was an absolute shock. One so vigorous, intelligent, warm, compassionate, and exhibiting excellence in human spirit cut short in life, seems chokingly incomprehensible. I can only imagine what her family and friends must be feeling. Take heart and courage.
    Ellen will be sorely missed.

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    Debra McDougall

    Like my colleague Samina Yasmeen, I am deeply saddened by the loss of Professor Aitken. I, too, had the pleasure of getting to know Ellen through the Tony Blair Faith and Globalisation network and spent time with her when in Montreal in 2011. Like everyone else, I found her warm, erudite, and inspirational. She was central to making the partnership amongst our universities real and productive. Several of our students had the privilege of being taught by her through intensive summer courses and all were moved by her intellect and generosity. My sincere condolences to her colleagues, students, husband, and family. Those of us who knew her briefly will miss her and it is hard to think about the enormity of your loss.

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    Jinping Ma

    When read this news, I seated down in chair with shocking. Prof. Aitken was so kind to students. Her encouragement and help to me when my wife was battling against cancer in the spring of 2010 gave me strength to continue my BTh/MDiv and to keep my commitment in service after graduation.
    “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)

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    Jeff Barlow

    As a mature student I was incredibly privileged to sit under Professor Aitken for her initial lectures at McGill. Her clear and deeply informed introduction to New Testament literature was a revelation and made a lasting impression on me and my life. The profound sadness of her far too early death is partly balanced by the knowledge that hers was a life that has benefited and changed the world for the better. Ellen will be sadly missed – may she rest in peace.

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    Jill Thorogood-Milne

    I only knew professor Aitkin by invitation. I never had the privilege to study under her 0r even to speak with her for any length of time, however it seems she sent me many invitations to attend events at Religious Studies at McGill, and many Religious events through the McGill Community. I know that her death is a tremendous loss to the Community. I am amazed that she was so sick, I had no idea about her suffering I only know about her generosity of spirit and gracious personality.
    I am truly saddened by the news of her death and even more saddened by the fact that I will be out of town on this day of her funeral. I can only offer prayers of Thanksgiving for this wonderful lady who allowed me to enter her world on very special occasions. Also I offer my my prayers for her family and friends for their immeasurable loss. I know how much she benefitted my life, how much more she will be missed by her friends and family is unimaginable.

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    Richard C. Worden

    Dear Mr. Porter and McGill Friends;
    I left McGill 50 years ago and yet Dean Aitken and I were in touch via the Internet and it was as if I had never left. She had a warm, welcoming, encouraging, and helpful interest in one who is a thousand miles away. We grieve her passing and commend her to the eternal care of God.

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    carey walsh

    Ellen was such a gracious, fun, and dynamic woman. I knew her at harvard when we both studied there. She combined faith and intelligence effortlessly. I am saddened to hear of her death. We would catch up at conferences over the years. May you rest, dear one, in peace.

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    Joshua Lai

    This news is both shocking and saddening for a recently graduated McGill undergraduate student such as me. I can still remember vividly the summer, from 2 years ago, in which I went to talk to her about Christianity and my own belief even though I am a Science student. She was a kind, friendly and loving professor, more of a friend than a mentor to me. My deepest condolences to all who are grieving.

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    Ellen was a fellow Academic Dean with me in the Chief Academic Officers Society of the Association of Theological Schools. I met her there in 2008 and have long appreciated her insight and wise perspectives. She was quiet among us, but deeply thoughtful with a lovely sense of humor. I enjoyed our companionship in these meetings and in the ATS Women’s meetings, as well. I will miss her – as will our ATS community. My prayers for God’s presence and strength go out to her friends, and family, and to her husband Bill during these days of devastating loss. With gratitude for a life so well lived and so generously offered.

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    David Guretzki

    I was saddened to hear the news of Dr. Aitken’s sudden passing. I had brief interactions with her in a some post-doctoral workshops I was able to attend at the Faculty of Religious Studies in the past few years. She was clearly committed to FRS, to her scholarship, and to the challenges of leadership. My condolences to her family and to the faculty and students at FRS.
    David Guretzki, PhD
    Professor of Theology, Church & Public Life
    Vice President, External Relations
    Briercrest College & Seminary
    Caronport, SK

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    Janine Schmidt

    During the five years I spent at McGill as Trenholme Director of Libraries, I worked with Ellen on the Deans’ Committee and came to respect her advice, commitment to the University and its goals, her deep and abiding regard for her discipline and her fundamental faith in making the world a better place for everyone. I am shocked and saddened by her untimely death and send my deepest sympathy to her family, friends and colleagues. The world is a better place because Ellen walked, and talked, on it.
    Janine Schmidt,
    Trenholme Director of Libraries Emerita

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    Judy Lodwick

    ‘God works in mysterious ways his purposes to fulfill’. Our hearts are made a little more tender through grief which we survive though we sometimes imagine we won’t and harden them.
    I contacted Ellen in the past couple of years to ask if her faculty might have room to accommodate an artist-in-residence. I was very grateful for her warm response and her forwarding my email on.
    Today I was about to contact her again in case she could use a personal assistant. Well, she’s had the best, the Holy Spirit. What more could a girl want.
    All the blessed to her family, colleagues, and friends.
    With Love, Judy Lodwick

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    Eunice Schatz

    I knew Ellen less in her academic roles, but rather as a priest in our parish, and as someone who often showed up at worship in the SSJE monastery in Cambridge when she was in town. And I also knew her as a loved partner in her marriage to Bill. My husband and I had a chance to observe them in action at their home once, a long time ago, and we marveled at the way the two of them prepared a meal together in the kitchen—moving in perfect harmony with one another as they each prepaid parts of our repast. It was symbolic of the way Ellen brought symphony into situations at any level. Sharing her last days of life (through the online Caring Bridge) was extraordinarily meaningful to me—as I realized she was being ushered into the presence of God more quickly than any of us imagined. She was more ready than we were.

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