Mother Maggie on Bikes, Sex and the Environment
By Tammy Thorne
Photos by Claire McFarlane
Biking is for everyone, and so is the earth - that's according to Reverend Maggie Helwig who has never owned a car and rides a bike or takes TTC everywhere. Pope Francis is now saying the same thing too.
The Pope recently told young nuns and other clergy to eschew fancy cars and ride a bicycle instead. His personal assistant rides a bike. Oh, and according to the Vatican, polluting is a sin.
Although her official Anglican title is "Mother Maggie," and she is a mother (her daughter bikes too), she prefers to simply be called, Maggie. She says, "The Pope is not the boss of me [since she's Anglican] - but I do agree with what he is saying."
Maggie sees over the parishioners at St. Stephens-in-the-Field church at College and Bellevue streets in Toronto, where we recently did our dandyhorse fashion shoot "Good Habits," which will appear in our upcoming bike plan election issue launching on June 26 at Cafe Pamenar. Our fashion shoot by photographer Mike Ford, features a sexy "sister" in sinful shoes, and we will post a behind-the-scenes look at our shoot soon too. The shoot was in part inspired by a real life cycling sister, who lived - and biked - in Toronto up until the age of 100. (You can read about the life of Sister Constance here.)
Maggie admits that there may be occasions where it might be necessary to use a car, but she sees environmentalism as a religious obligation. "We are stewards of the earth, we are part of a great, complex magnificent creation, which we need to take care of respectfully. We need to honour the value of this whole magnificent world, rather than just sucking the oil out of the ground and exploiting it for our own use. This is a religious obligation, it’s a profoundly religious obligation. I actually preached about that today."
Maggie also said she had absolutely no issue with the use of religious imagery in our photo shoot. "The high heels though, I was like: “You’re pretending you cycling in heels like that?” That was really my only reservation about it," she says with a friendly smirk.
However, she agreed that biking in heels is easier than walking in them: "That’s almost certainly true. It’s easier to bike when you’re pregnant than to walk too. When I was pregnant with my daughter everyone asked: “Why are you still on your bike?” and I said: “Because it’s so hard to walk!” I biked right up until the point when I went into labour."
Maggie became a minister about two-and-a-half years ago. "I came to it later in life, but it’s something that I had in my mind since I was 20. Why? I don’t know. You feel this inexplicable need to do this. Because it seemed like a thing you have to do and you don’t know why. It also seemed like it was a place from which I could do a lot of the things I wanted to do, both in trying to achieve things in the world and also trying to act out the work of church in a different way than what I’ve seen going on. It’s a complicated set of reasons."
She says that the church provides a great platform for community activities (like the theatre troupe that was practicing on the day we did the interview) and that many of the clergy she knows take TTC or ride a bike to get around.
"My honourary assistant here is a better distance cyclist than I am, and she doesn’t drive a car. She is a very committed cyclist. A number of the priests that work in the downtown area are bike people rather than car people. Oh yes, and there’s an order of Anglican nuns up in North York that are actually quite profoundly committed to environmental responsibility generally, they’re divesting from oil companies, they put in solar panels, they’re trying to have as much of the power in the convent solar generated as possible. There was a wonderful, wonderful nun there who just died at the age of 109 who rode a bike well I think, into her 90s. I mean, she, I think, just started riding a bike because when she was young, she couldn’t afford a car, only rich people had a car. But in her 80s she became a gerontologist, so she would go out on her bike, in her nuns habit, to visit the 'old people', many of whom were younger than she was! There are great photos of Sister Constance heading out on her bike to visit the elderly, in her 90s. Finally they had to make her stop riding her bike because she couldn't see and it wasn’t safe anymore, but she really gave it up very regretfully. She was wonderful."
Maggie says the intersection of Spadina-Dundas could use some divine intervention... or just some help from City planners. "Any kind of bike lanes are good. I would love to have a protected bike lane on Spadina," she says.
And what about distracted driving: Isn't it a deadly sin?
"I think distracted driving is a terrible thing to do. I think it's wrong and I think endangering the life of another person is a deeply wrong thing to do but “deadly sin” is not language that I would use. I would quite welcome other people to use it, but I don’t feel comfortable using it. It would imply that I am literally saying that you will go to hell for this and I don’t think anyone is going to go to hell. Even distracted drivers will be saved someday, somehow."
She continues; "There’s something to be said about reclaiming the language of sin and looking at it as a thing which is about a society. We’ve individualized sin and we’ve relocated it in people's personal habits and especially in people’s sex lives as if it is so incredibly important - the individualizing of sin has done a lot of damage. There’s room for trying to re-frame that language and to talk about what we do as a community and what we do as a society, which is where serious evil happens."
Regarding the individualization of sin, didn't the new Pope say that it’s none of the church’s business what people do as far as their personal sex lives go?
"I think he said, “Who am I to judge?” and that’s good, that’s such an improvement," Maggie continues, "He’s not exactly queer-positive yet, but he’s a lot better than what we’ve had in the past."
Related on the dandyBLOG:
Behind the scenes of our "Good Habits" fashion shoot (coming soon)