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Thousands packed the Revivaltime Tabernacle in Toronto, Canada, on Thursday, August 3, to pay their final respects to Jamaica’s cultural icon, the Hon. Louise Bennett-Coverley (Miss Lou). The church, which seats over 2,000, was packed to capacity, with speaker after speaker regaling Miss Lou’s accomplishments and contribution to Jamaica and its people.
The more than three-hour service, which brought laughter and tears from the audience, was presided over by Bishop Dr. Audley James, accompanied by Rev. Dr. Pat Francis and Rev. Easton Lee. In attendance were Canadian and Jamaican government officials, members of the diplomatic corps, police officials and heads of Jamaican organizations.
Minister of Housing, Transport and Works, Robert Pickersgill, in his remarks at the function, said that Miss Lou represented the “conscience of the Jamaican people, prompting us in a good-natured but unrelenting way to take a good hard look at the issues of the day as well as fundamental issues of morality and humanity.”
He noted that the subjects in her anthology of radio commentaries, Aunty Roachy Seh, revealed the depth and breadth of her thought and consequent influence on Jamaicans of all walks of life. “Issues of language, race, ethnicity, culture, identity, gender, politics, journalistic ethics, music, censorship, heritage, education, Caribbean integration, micro economic and social amenities, all find a place in this deceptively thin volume,” he said.
Calling Miss Lou the cornerstone of Brand Jamaica, Minister Pickersgill said she clearly understood the marketability of Jamaica’s culture and history, and led the way. Reminiscing about Miss Lou’s homecoming to Jamaica three years ago, the Minister said “we watched with amazement as she lifted the spirits of the entire nation for three wonderful weeks. Walk good Miss Lou, straight into the arms of our Lord and Saviour. One Love, Miss Lou.”
Opposition Spokesperson on Culture, Olivia Grange, said it was extremely difficult to say goodbye to an icon, especially one who was a friend, mentor and role model for so many years and to so many people.Ms. Grange compared the Jamaican cultural icon to the American civil rights icon, Rosa Parks. “Rosa Parks, by refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man 50 years ago, convinced generations of American blacks that they didn’t have to give up anything because they had a right to everything. Miss Lou, by refusing to give up her Jamaican dialect, her patois, for the Queen’s English, convinced generations of Jamaicans that we didn’t have to give up anything we created, including our dialect, because it was something we had created and therefore something we should cherish.”
Delivering the eulogy was friend of 50 years, Maud Fuller, who noted that this would be the only royal ceremony many attending the service would ever witness, “because Miss Lou “was, is and will remain royalty. She walked with kings, ate with queens but never lost the common touch.”
Ms. Fuller, who played Liza in the Lou and Ranny radio show, said she was there to praise Miss Lou, not to bury her. “How do you bury creativity? Imagination? Originality? Artistic integrity? How do you bury laughter? Miss Lou cannot be buried because she is indelibly etched in the collective psyche of a nation and a people.”
Another friend and stage partner, Leonie Forbes, remarked that everyone loved working with Miss Lou. “She was a true mother figure, physically and emotionally. Whoever worked with Miss Lou knew that their mother was also there.”
Ms. Forbes said her fondest recollection of Miss Lou was when they acted together in the 1973 revival of the Pantomime, Queenie’s Daughter, in which Miss Lou played the mother and she played the daughter. “The song in the pantomime, Lionheart, describes Miss Lou. She was a lionhearted woman – loving her craft, devoted to her husband, a surrogate mother to all children everywhere, whenever and wherever she went”.
The Consul General for Trinidad and Tobago, Michael Lashley, paid tribute on behalf of the Caribbean Consular Corps in Toronto. “Whenever any member of our Caribbean family distinguishes himself or herself on the world stage, all of us are proud, inspired, strengthened in our identity and our self-confidence. We have therefore over-rejoiced at the stellar achievements of our Miss Lou. She was a daughter of the soil of Jamaica and therefore a daughter of our Caribbean family.”
Family friend Gail Scala, said that Miss Lou’s door as always open to the steady stream of visitors “who came to bask in the warmth of her love and her laughter that represented for so many of us, the bright Jamaican sunshine on cold and dreary winter days. Last Wednesday, the brightest star in the Caribbean sky dimmed slightly when Miss Lou passed from this world into the next to join her beloved Ricoh. But her light still shines brightly – illuminating our lives and our culture. She has left us a precious gift, let us preserve and cherish it.”Carol Wong, representing the Tsung Tsin Association of Ontario, said that as “babies we were rocked to sleep with songs Miss Lou sang and as we grew up we were mesmerized with Anancy stories, rolling calves and duppy market.”
President of the Jamaican Canadian Association, Sandra Carnegie-Douglas, borrowing a phrase from American poet Maya Angelou, said Miss Lou “a fi wi phenomenal ooman. Miss Lou exuded love, she exuded pride in identity, she exuded goodness and she was filled with laughter. Through her work, and her passion she elevated the common folk – the common Jamaican. She was, in deeds, in words and in person – a woman of the people and a woman for the people.”Consul General to Toronto, Anne-Marie Bonner, read messages of condolences from Toronto’s Mayor David Miller and President of the University of Toronto, David Naylor, while Jamaican-born Mary Anne Chambers, Minister of Children and Youth Services, read a message from Premier of the province of Ontario, Hon. Dalton McGuinty, in which he thanked Miss Lou for making the city of Toronto and the province of Ontario, her home.
The premier called Miss Lou “a great Jamaican, Ontarian and Canadian.” Minister Chambers also announced that the government of Ontario would be working with the Jamaican community “to create a tribute to Miss Lou, which will immortalize her here in Ontario.”
Fifteen-year-old Simone Soman sang ‘Wind Beneath My Wings,’ Winston Hurlock belted out ‘Jerusalem,’ Rose Heavens sang ‘It Is Well With My Soul’ and Demario McDowell did a beautiful rendition of ‘She Did It Her Way.’
Actress Denise Jones had the audience in laughter when she recited one of Miss Lou’s poems, ‘Sarah Chice.’ The scripture readings were done by Miss Lou’s grandson and adopted daughter, Clayton Coverley and Simone Watson.
Some of those in attendance included Jamaica’s Acting High Commissioner, Patricia Evering; Jamaica Tourist Board Regional Director for Canada, Sandra Scott; Deputy Chief of Police Keith Forde; Hon. Gerry Phillips, Minister of Government Services; Hon. Michael Colle, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration; former mayor of Toronto, Barbara Hall; Toronto City Councillor Michael Thompson; and Brampton City Councillor Garnett Manning.
Miss Lou died on Wednesday, July 26, in the Scarborough Grace Hospital at the age of 86. Her body and the remains of Eric Coverley, her late husband, were returned to Jamaica on August 5. Mr. Coverley was re-interred on Sunday Aug.6 at National Heroes Park and the official funeral for Miss Lou will be held on Wednesday, August 9.