In Memoriam: Mariel O’Neill-Karch, former Woodsworth College Principal and Professor Emerita of French (1942-2023)

November 7, 2023 by A&S News

The Faculty of Arts & Science is remembering the life and career of Mariel O’Neill-Karch, former Woodsworth College principal and professor emerita in the Department of French, who passed away on October 29.

In addition to her legacy as a professor and principal, O’Neill-Karch was an accomplished writer, editor and important promoter of French theatre in Ontario. She began teaching at St. Michael’s College in 1966 and taught at U of T for over 40 years.

O’Neill-Karch first taught 19th-century French literature, including the works of George Sand, Gérard de Nerval and Charles Baudelaire. She later taught the literature of Quebec. In 1974, she edited an anthology of French-Canadian texts entitled Options with her husband, fellow French professor Pierre Paul Karch. She next returned to what she called her first love — the theatre — teaching courses on Quebec theatre and the emerging Franco-Ontarian corpus, which she later analyzed in a 1992 book entitled Théâtre franco-ontarien: espaces ludiques.

Says Anne-Marie Brousseau, chair of the Department of French: “Mariel was a ‘grande dame.’ She was a role model for all of us — professors, students, administrators — in the French department, the University of Toronto, and well beyond. She engaged actively in sharing her genuine passion for Franco-Ontarian literature and theatre, not only with her publications, but also with her support of cultural institutions. She will be remembered as a great Torontonian, a great Franco-Ontarian, and above all, a great lady.”

O’Neill-Karch held a number of significant administrative positions at the University. She served as associate chair of the Department of French from 1993-1995, as well as interim principal of St. Michael’s College from 1997-1998. She was also vice-dean of humanities in the Faculty of Arts & Science from 1998-2002, and principal of Woodsworth College from 2002-2007.

“Mariel was a close friend of mine for many years, and we loved the years when we were both principals,” recalls Janet Paterson, former principal of Innis College and former chair of the Department of French. “She absolutely loved her time at Woodsworth, where she cherished all the wonderful people.”

Widely published, O’Neill-Karch contributed to a number of periodicals as well as writing books. Some of these included The Canadian Modern Language Review, Francophonies d'Amérique, Revue de l'Université Laurentienne, University of Toronto Quarterly, Cultures, The Toronto Semiotic Circle Bulletin, Jeu, Documentation sur la recherche féministe, International Journal of Applied Semiotics, LittéRéalité, Revue d'histoire littéraire du Québec et du Canada français and Voix et images.

Much of her work was collaborative, including the books she wrote with her husband. These also included Dictionnaire des citations de l’Ontario français depuis 1960 (1996; second edition 2016), a unique collection of literary quotations drawn from 760 works written by 230 Franco-Ontarian authors. Together, they created the Mariel O’Neill-Karch and Pierre Karch Admission Scholarship in the Humanities, awarded each year to an outstanding first-year Woodsworth College student.

This scholarship is but one example of the couple’s generous philanthropy both inside and outside U of T. In 2017, they were presented the Gardiner Benefactor Award in recognition of their outstanding contributions of faїence and porcelain to Toronto’s Gardiner Museum. 

O’Neill-Karch’s tenure as the first Franco-Ontarian principal of Woodsworth was impressive. While there, she saw fundraising increase by 33 per cent. She also presided over the creation of over 20 new scholarships and a variety of small-class seminars. The period of her principalship saw great increases in attendance at the Academic Writing Centre and in the Summer Abroad program.

O’Neill-Karch retired from both Woodsworth and the University in 2007. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from St. Michael’s College that year.

“Professor Mariel O’Neill-Karch was a wonderful colleague and a great mentor to me in our respective roles as associate deans and principals of Woodsworth College,” says Professor Joe Desloges, who succeeded her as principal. “I valued her wisdom, composure and dedication to student success. She will be greatly missed.”