At around noon on March 9, Betty Sanguin arrived at her church, Churchill Park United in Winnipeg, on a stretcher.
“The moment we rolled her in … and sat her up in her recliner, she lit up like a Christmas tree,” Lynda Sanguin-Colpitts, one of Sanguin’s daughters, recalls. “I hadn’t seen that much life in her eyes, so much joy [in a long time]. And honestly I think part of it was just being in the church.”
But this was no ordinary church service. Sanguin chose to die in the sanctuary that day.
Last spring, Sanguin was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). And when she decided to access medical assistance in dying (MAiD), she wanted the procedure to happen at her church.
Churchill Park United’s leadership team unanimously approved her request, and on March 9, the “crossing-over” ceremony took place in the church’s sanctuary. This was the first MAiD procedure to take place in a church in Manitoba.
Sanguin could no longer talk, so she used a whiteboard to communicate. When she was settled in her recliner, she wrote: “Welcome to my special day. I love you all so much.”
Sanguin’s children had worked hard to make the big space feel intimate. In the end, it was almost as if they were in her living room. There was a recliner for Sanguin to sit in, an area rug, a lamp, and a collection of family photos. Many of the quilts that Sanguin had made over the years were on display.
The chairs were set up in what Renée Sanguin, another one of her daughters, described as a “circle of care.” The six chairs immediately surrounding Betty Sanguin were for her six children; the next tier was for husbands, wives and grandchildren; and the final tier was for friends.
During the ceremony, two of her grandchildren sang “Let Your Light Shine on Me” and everyone joined in for “How Great Thou Art.” She waved her arms along to the music. She had prepared a playlist for the event, which was mostly gospel music — a lifelong love of hers.
“There was an opportunity for every single person who wanted to to come and hold her hand and tell her they loved her and say goodbye,” says Renée Sanguin. “It was very touching and very intimate.”
Afterwards, the minister of Churchill Park United, Rev. Dawn Rolke, offered a blessing. Each of Betty Sanguin’s six children placed their hands on her as Rolke invited her to go in peace.
Eventually, everyone was asked to leave the sanctuary and Betty Sanguin met with the MAiD team. After giving her final consent, the procedure took place. Her six children returned to the sanctuary and stayed with her until the end.
“That part was harder,” said Sanguin-Colpitts. “We just stood around her and we cried, we laughed, we did everything.”
She and Renée Sanguin describe their mom as a courageous, smart, and outspoken woman who felt called to serve others. She was very involved at Oak Table, which serves meals and provides hospitality for folks struggling in Winnipeg.
“I think that’s [how] I think of her most, just as that loving, giving person, who wanted to just make everybody’s life bright, perfect, and helping any and every way that she could,” Sanguin-Colpitts says.
She was constantly asking questions and looking for answers — especially in her faith. Rolke recalled that during after-worship discussions, Betty Sanguin asked the hard questions. Rolke describes her as having a “growing, changing spirituality; her faith was feisty, fierce and passionate, like Betty herself.”
The decision to end her life was not an easy one. “She grappled with her faith … How do we know when our soul is ready? Will [her] soul be ready to cross over?” Renée Sanguin says.
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But she says she thinks it was important that her mother could choose to leave this world on her own terms.
“As a human being, your voice and your choices are what matter in the end. And you don’t have to feel shame and you get to ask for what you want. You get to go out the way you want to go out,” Renée Sanguin says.
While much of the response to the crossing-over ceremony has been positive, there have been exceptions. Rolke has received messages telling her that Churchill Park United should close their doors and that they should be ashamed of their actions. What Rolke finds hard to describe to these critics is “the sense of ‘rightness’” and the overwhelming presence of spirit during the ceremony.
She was also surprised that many critics were most offended by the procedure taking place in the church, instead of the procedure itself. “It’s good for any congregation to discern: What do we believe about our space? Is it more sacred than other spaces? What is the purpose of the sanctuary?” she says. “Who is allowed in it, and what can happen in it? For other congregations asked to consider a service of crossing-over, knowing their congregation’s position on their space will be quite important.”
More than a month after her mother’s death, Sanguin-Colpitts reflects on the experience: “Was it any less sad? No. Was it any less tragic? No,” she says. “Was it any less heartbreaking? No. But was it the most beautiful and humane and compassionate way to die? Yes.”
Emily Standfield is an editorial intern at Broadview.
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