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Janet Cotter Poole, protester for peace and self-described radical Catholic, dies at 94

Mrs. Poole.

An untiring protester for peace, and a death penalty opponent who often stood vigil outside the State House and Boston’s federal courthouse, Janet Cotter Poole considered herself a radical Catholic.

Arrested four times during antiwar and anti-nuclear protests, she once was sentenced to 300 hours of community service.

As she and her husband, Alden, reflected on their activism for a 2012 family video, Mrs. Poole noted that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks “spread fear throughout the land. I’m not sure that it made most people think differently about war, but it made me want to work harder for peace.”

A Catholic unafraid to challenge the church’s hierarchy, conduct, and sexism, Mrs. Poole died Dec. 15 in a rehabilitation center in Quincy, the community where she had lived for decades. She was 94 and had fractured her collarbone in a fall two weeks earlier.

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“My faith is what I believe, not what the church tells me to believe,” she said in a 2018 oral history interview for her family. “My faith is different than it would have been had there not been a lack of morality on the part of the Catholic Church. A lot of people now understand that authoritarianism of any kind is a problem.”

To the end, she encouraged her family and everyone she met to be kind, to care more about others, and to work for a better world.

“She always had this optimism that really showed us who we were and who we could be,” said her daughter the Rev. Mary Poole, a retired hospice chaplain who lives in Bellingham.

Her mother, she said, emphasized “that you can always make the world a better place with your gifts. Every little kindness, every act of service, every act of love makes a difference. Go out and do it.”

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Just last year Mrs. Poole told her family that “faith needs to be lived and acted upon. I sometimes get impatient with Catholics. I want them to get on board with social justice and peace. It’s what Catholicism is all about.”

At a Quincy Human Rights Commission breakfast in January 2008 to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mayor Thomas P. Koch of Quincy presented Mrs. Poole with a commendation to recognize “your long record of advocacy for peace and social justice.”

In her acceptance speech, she said that “receiving this recognition on MLK day is especially significant” because “a portrait of Martin with Mahatma Gandhi and Dorothy Day has long adorned our family room wall. Entitled ‘Prophets of Nonviolence,’ it is a constant reminder of their struggles for justice and peace.”

She ended by recalling that King’s phrase “nonviolence or nonexistence” was sewn onto a banner she and a friend carried at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee to protest the Gulf War in 1990.

“We were arrested and jailed,” she concluded, as her words drew sustained applause from those at the breakfast.

Her recollections of being willing to risk jail time drew cheers in other venues as well.

After raising her nine children, Mrs. Poole spent 16 years teaching English and chairing her department at the Woodward School, a private girls’ school in Quincy.

She rode her bicycle to work year-round, her family said, and gave the commencement address in 1994 when she retired.

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“Her speech was moving, gutsy, and funny, especially when she managed to work in a mention of Woodward faculty’s excellence, despite very low salaries and no fringe benefits,” wrote her husband, Alden, who died in 2015, that year in the family’s Christmas newsletter. “The most surprising moment came when she mentioned having gone to jail for peace. The hall erupted in a strong, spontaneous ovation.”

Janet Therese Cotter was born in Brockton on Aug. 22, 1928, and grew up there, the youngest of four children.

While her mother, Sarah Thornell Cotter, raised the children, her father, Joseph, struggled to remain employed during the Great Depression, a challenge made more difficult by his alcoholism.

When Janet was 6, the family moved into two furnished rooms in a boarding house. Writing in 1994 in an unpublished memoir, she recalled that only once did she bring home a friend, “who asked why we were all squeezed into these two rooms. I, who took truth-telling very seriously, lied.”

She told her friend that her family had access to all the boarding house rooms, but used only two because “we liked to be together.”

As often as possible, Mrs. Poole walked across town to a library, which was “my refuge, really.”

She graduated from Brockton High School in 1946 and from Emmanuel College with a bachelor’s degree in English.

After meeting Alden Poole, a World War II veteran, Janet gave him a copy of “The Seven Storey Mountain,” Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s spiritual autobiography.

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They married in December 1950, and he went on to a career as a reporter, editor, and journalism professor.

“They really were the real deal. They were soulmates, best friends, all of their lives,” their daughter Mary said. “And then he died and it’s been seven years of her waiting to be back with him again.”

Along with raising their children, the Pooles were activists and side-by-side protesters.

“This was a lifelong vocation for them,” Mary said. “Her activism and theirs was always grounded in a deep faith. She truly did live for others for 94 years. She literally put other people first.”

Mrs. Poole was a member and often a leader of organizations including the local League of Women Voters chapter and fair housing committee.

She worked with South Shore and local organizations that opposed the death penalty, nuclear weapons, and war, participating in leafleting, vigils, and demonstrations for those issues and for anti-apartheid actions.

“We need to get out beyond ourselves — and first and foremost, focus on kindness,” she said in 2018.

Mrs. Poole “taught us all to be loving and kind,” said her son Tony of Quincy. “She was a quiet, strong person. That quiet strength is something I hope to keep in myself and pass on.”

A memorial Mass dedicated to peace was said for Mrs. Poole, who in addition to Mary and Tony, leaves five other daughters, Kathleen of Montpelier, Vt.; Gina of Sandwich; Lucy Burlingame of Hingham; Sarah McCarty of Quincy; and Joanna of Arlington; another son, Tim of Wilmington, N.C.; 20 grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren. Mrs. Poole’s daughter Kristin died of cancer in 1996.

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“Of all the things she was and did, she was proudest of being a wife, mother, and grandmother,” Mary said. “I cannot overstate how adored she was by her family. This was a matriarch with a capital ‘M.’ She was a living example of goodness for an entire 60-odd people in her extended family, and we will carry that with us.”

In the 2018 interview with her family, Mrs. Poole said that after her husband, Alden, died, she wrote him letters.

“Now I have conversations with him, but he doesn’t talk back. I sense a presence,” she said. “I wonder if that means I am closer to death.”

As for what might follow, “I go back and forth,” she said. “I don’t have a firm idea. I just don’t feel that all the goodness, the joy, the awareness of life could just be gone. There has to be something left, or something new, another adventure. Will I be able to see so-and-so? I don’t know. I get the feeling there are many worlds.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.