Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 15, 2004
'I feel my God is always there'
Faith smoothed Allan Wachowich's trip from altar boy to chief justice
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
As a teenager, he served as an altar boy at St. Joseph's Basilica and harboured dreams of becoming a priest.
Even though he ended up taking a different career path, Chief Justice Allan Wachowich remained a committed Catholic, leading an unparalleled life of service to the Church and the community.
"My faith has been part of my life and at times I feel I have a strong relationship with God and at other times, of course, it wanes," he says. "But my faith is very important to me. And I feel there are two aspects to man, one is a physical aspect and one is spiritual. And through your faith, you develop that spiritual life."
In an interview, Wachowich spoke of a faith that expresses itself in social action, something his peers say he has modelled throughout his life.
Over the years, Wachowich has served on the boards of many Church organizations, including the WCR, the Friars, the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, Catholic Charities and the St. Thomas More Catholic Lawyers' Guild, an organization which he started in 1963.
Honoured by peers
In recognition to his dedication, the Catholic Lawyers' Guild paid tribute to Wachowich at a banquet at the MacDonald Hotel Nov. 4 following the annual Red Mass at the basilica.
Some 270 lawyers, members of the judiciary and the community at large attended the $150-a-plate event, which saw tributes to Wachowich from guests such as businessman and politician Julian Koziak, the Honourable Madam Justice Juliana Topolniski and Wachowich's son David, a Calgary lawyer. The dinner also marked Wachowich's 30 years as a judge and the guild's 40th anniversary.
"I'm a reluctant bride," Wachowich said in an interview before the banquet. "On this occasion I consider myself to be a symbol of the fact that this guild has been in existence for 40 years."
"This is an extremely well deserved tribute," commented city lawyer Theresa Haykowsky, president of the lawyers' guild and one of the tribute's organizers.
"Chief Justice Wachowich is very humble, very hard working, very compassionate, very caring for people," she said. "He is an extremely busy individual as a chief justice and yet he takes time for people. He is accessible to people. He renders justice accessible to citizens."
Rosanna Saccomani, a past president of the guild and a banquet organizer, noted Wachowich comes from a simple background and is able to identify with common people. "That's what I love about him; it is his humility. He is a very fair man, he has a wonderful sense of humour and I think he brings that humour into the courtroom and I think that's important from time to time."
City lawyer Ross Swanson, the guild's vice president, is also impressed by Wachowich. "He is a man who certainly has concern for his community and a man who has done a great deal in terms of leadership, both in the legal community and frankly as a member of the Catholic Church."
"He is a very fair man, he has a wonderful sense of humour and I think he brings that humour into the courtroom and I think that's important from time to time."
- Rosanna Saccomani
Founded lawyers' guild
"He is responsible, in essence, for the formation of the guild. He was the individual who actually took the time and showed leadership in forming this organization, which was an effort by him to basically bring together Catholic lawyers in the community."
Born the seventh of eight children in Edmonton March 8, 1935, Wachowich attended St. Joseph's High School and served as an altar boy at St. Joseph's Basilica. His peers pushed him into leadership positions, including voting him president of his high school grad class and captain of his basketball teams both at high school and university.
But it was his experiences as an altar server that he recalls with the most affection. "I started as an acolyte and Msgr. O'Brien, who was in charge of the altar boys, then gave me lessons to become an altar boy," the justice said. "I think I was 10 years old when I started and I served Mass for Archbishop MacDonald three times a week for close to two years."
Wachowich's mother would wake him up in the mornings so he would not be late for Mass. Being late would have meant immediate dismissal. "Archbishop MacDonald went through altar boys like Zsa Zsa Gabor went through husbands," he laughed. "If you were out of line at all, you were dismissed."
Being around priests and serving at Mass was bound to have an effect on the young Wachowich, who more than once thought about becoming a priest. "I gave that a very serious thought in Grade 12," he recalled. "When my good friend (Father) Mike McCaffery went to the seminary, it made me think about it again."
But when Father MacDonald, then principal of St. Joseph's High, asked Wachowich if he had given the priesthood a serious thought, the lad told him he had, except he liked girls too much.
"When I think about it now, I don't think I would have been a good priest."
Wachowich married his wife Bette in 1959 and the couple has four adult children, two of whom are lawyers.
He graduated in law from the University of Alberta in 1958 and was called to the Bar of Alberta in 1959, to the Bar of the Northwest Territories in 1967, and to the Bar of Yukon in 1972. He was appointed to the district court of the District of Northern Alberta in 1974, becoming a judge of the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench in 1979. Wachowich was appointed chief justice of the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench in 2000.
"I have been a lawyer for 45 years - 16 years a lawyer and close to 30 years a judge," he said.
The justice gives credit to his parents for his achievements. "Education was the most important thing that my parents could give us, although my father spent one day in Grade 1; he was self-educated," he explained. "My mother went up to Grade 3." Of the eight children in the Wachowich family, six were graduates of the University of Alberta.
As a chief justice, Wachowich is basically the justice in charge, overseeing the judicial system and its 80 justices. He has the authority for organizing the court and ensuring that cases are being heard in an efficient and in an effective way within a reasonable period of time.
Wachowich, now the longest serving judge in the Court of Queen's Bench, will consider retirement in 2007, when the court celebrates its 100th anniversary.
Praying at the gym
Prayer is important in his personal life. "I pray in some way each and every day, but in particular when I'm riding a stationary bike at the (gym)," he says. " I try my very best to ensure that I get to Mass on Sundays. I feel that one should give at least one hour back to God during the week in a communal sense."
Does faith play a role in Wachowich's life as a judge? "Well, I feel my God is always there and I might have a short invocation by saying, 'Please give me the wisdom to make the correct decision,' but I don't go down on my hands and knees to pray at a time like that," he says. "It's a general invocation to God to guide me correctly. But I don't do that in every case. So it might just be a 30 second type of prayer to ask for some guidance. 'Be with me on this one.'"
Wachowich once heard a custody application in a smaller town north of Peace River. The conflict was between a father who was Catholic and a mother who was Jehovah Witness. He awarded custody of the children to the mother.
"I can remember the lawyer saying to his client after the decision was over, 'See, I told you he was a fair judge. Even though he is a Catholic, it makes no different at this hearing.' And that's the way the law should be, based on the facts that are presented before you in court."
Despite his busy schedule, Wachowich has served in about 35 organizations. "We are all obligated to try to make this world a little better place in which to live."
He leaves time to play too. "I'm a very strong Eskimos fan and an Oiler fan and I am quite often seen occupied in what is known as judges' box at the baseball games at Telus Field," he says. He also enjoys travel and spending time with his wife Bette and their eight grandchildren.
Hanging from the walls of his office are pictures of him and his wife shaking the hands of two different popes they had private audiences with: Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul.
"I've been very fortunate in so many ways," he said, glancing at the photos. "I've been blessed with many good friends and a career that's very satisfying. In my prayers I say a prayer of thanksgiving for all that God's given to our family and me."