Father Peter Larisey died peacefully in the Lord on 30 April at St. Michael’s Hospital, Toronto. He was in his 92nd year and was a Jesuit for 68 years. Peter, the son of William Larisey and Mary Laing was born in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia on 30 March, 1929. After three years at St. Mary’s University, Halifax, he entered the Society of Jesus at Guelph, Ontario, on
7 September 1952. Two years later Peter pronounced first vows and did the usual two-year juniorate. In 1956 Peter began philosophy at Immaculée-Conception, Montréal and his regency began in 1959 at Loyola High School, Montréal. He began theology in 1962 at Regis College, Willowdale and was ordained there on 5 June, 1965. Tertianship was done at Paray-le-Monial, France.
Drawn to art since childhood, Peter wanted to study art in a serious way. Starting about 1959, each year he would ask Father Provincial if he might be allowed to study art. It was in 1966 that he showed the new Father Provincial his scrapbook filled with his published writing about art and reviews of the successes of his ground-breaking art exhibitions at Regis College. And so, Peter was missioned in 1967 to Columbia University, New York to study the history of art finishing in 1971. He continued his study at Carleton University, Ottawa, working towards a Ph.D., which was awarded in 1982 by Columbia University, following a further two years there. During these studies he was appointed professor of Art History at Carleton from 1977 to 1980.
A definitive milestone came in 1993 when he published Light for a Cold Land – Lawren Harris’s Work and Life – An Interpretation. The review in the Globe and Mail noted: “It is the first art historical study of that Group of Seven artist that attempts to explore his life and all aspects of his career. It is based on extensive work in archives, libraries, public art galleries and private collections in Canada, as well as research in Germany and interviews with members of Harris’ family and many of his friends, acquaintances, colleagues and critics.” It was also nominated for a Governor-General’s book award.
Peter lived in Toronto from 1982 until 1987 devoted to teaching about religion and art at universities, curating exhibitions of notable Canadian artists, and writing about his specialty. In 1987, he was appointed socius to the Master of Novices at Guelph, ON, while continuing to lecture at Regis College. Back in Toronto in 1991, he continued his life’s work until he moved to the infirmary in 2018. There, Peter faithfully dedicated himself to writing his book on the relationship between religion and modern art. Always wanting to be more exact and more polished, he never was able to finish this work. But wisely, he suggested some names for a committee to be set up to finish and publish this book, which was so important to him. His dedication to this project was edifying, and the last time he worked on it was only two weeks before his death.
Interestingly, Peter never had an office but always a studio! Living environment and work-space were critical for Peter to be at peace, to be healthy and to be productive. But Peter also always liked to be among the poor, for whom he had a righteous anger. Peter boasted about having an adopted son, Martin, whom he guided into adulthood and with whom he stayed close. Peter loved celebrating the HIV Mass and for All Inclusive Ministries at Our Lady of parish in Toronto. Peter was keenly interested in persons and approached strangers easily. Some of his very last words in the hospital were, “I am happy. I am feeling better and I am looking forward to some good conversation with you.”
Peter suffered most of his life from asthma and regularly left Toronto in the summer to escape the smog and to breathe in the clear Maritime air of Nova Scotia or Newfoundland. He seemed to have 9 or more lives. Because of serious heart issues he visited Emergency Rooms frequently, often brought there after a dramatic attack in the middle of some liturgy or celebrative event. At his last celebration of the Easter Vigil at René Goupil less than 3 weeks before his death, Peter proclaimed the creation story from the Book of Genesis in a strong descriptive voice that convinced all hearers of the repetitive words, “And God saw that it was good!”