When I first met Nancy Mallett, ODT, curator of the museum and archives that bear her name at Toronto’s Cathedral Church of St. James, she was the organizing genius behind a major international conference and exhibition on the history of the crèche, hosted by the cathedral in November 2011. She was 82.
Since then, she has launched several other major undertakings, perhaps most notably Canada’s first-ever exhibit on the history of the military chaplaincy in commemoration of the 100th year anniversary of the outbreak of World War I in 1914. And she has also masterminded exhibits on truth and reconciliation and Black history with uncompromising integrity and unyielding standards.
“Nancy is very particular when it comes to presentations, and you have to provide solid examples and not just rely on words,” says Kathy Grant, president of Legacy Voices, a group dedicated to the preservation of Canadian Black military history, who worked with Mallett on the 2017 Black history exhibit. “She is demanding. You give Nancy a little and she asks for more and more because integrity is everything to her and she wants things to be bulletproof.”
Now 88, Mallett shows no signs of slowing down, putting in longer workdays and weeks in the Nancy Mallett Museum and Archives as an unpaid volunteer than many career-building 40-year-olds. “I’m just glad to have a focus and a place to go to every day,” she says modestly, looking youthful with her blonde hair and engaging smile and wearing one of the many killer jackets in her wardrobe.
This year, she’s deep into another project—just the small matter of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, for which she and her archives committee volunteers are mounting an October exhibition marking Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church on October 31, 1517.
Mallett is “a whirlwind and an inspiration,” says Canon David Brinton, the cathedral’s recently retired sub-dean and vicar. “Nancy has been a remarkable presence here for some 20 years, playing a huge role in reviving our archives and museum, not just cataloguing artifacts and documents with her team of volunteers, but initiating an imaginative series of exhibits and other programs of historical, artistic, theological, ecumenical and social significance—not just to the cathedral community, but to this neighbourhood, city and province.”
Oh, and did I remember to mention that she ran the cathedral’s Sunday school for five years? That role was a natural one for Mallett, who spent decades in Toronto’s inner-city public schools, starting as a kindergarten teacher and then moving into the grades, and eventually becoming a principal consultant and teacher of teachers. One of her areas of expertise was the critical importance of children’s play and public parks and playgrounds, and Mallett became a sought-after international speaker on this topic, travelling across Canada and to Europe, Russia and Japan.
Her interest in archives and exhibits came to the fore when she began volunteering for special exhibits at the Art Gallery of Ontario and walking tours at the Royal Ontario Museum. Retiring from teaching in 1988, the once United Church member was invited to attend a service at the cathedral. “At the time, I had begun to feel the need for some centering in my life,” she recalls.
What began with that chance service led her to confirmation and a spiritual home in the Anglican church. “I felt this is where I belonged, this is where I wanted to be.” And there she has stayed, taking over the reorganization of the cathedral archives in the late 1990s and soon moving beyond a curatorial role into community relations and creating strong ties between St. James and local business and other downtown organizations.
“She has been one of the most significant players in making the cathedral known to people who either knew nothing about it or had distorted views of its role in the civic life of Toronto in the past and indeed in the present day,” Brinton says.
In 2013, Mallett’s work as preserver of history was recognized with a Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award.
Mallett remains as well connected as an elite talk show host and is known for assembling people from all walks of life and listening carefully to their stories. Proof of that can be found in the catalogue of the 2014 chaplaincy exhibit, in which she thanked almost 200 diverse people by name, She listens, yes, but in the end, when it’s time for an executive decision, she will make a firm ruling, and Nancy’s mallet comes down.