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Parishioners shocked by manslaughter charge

“Dumbfounded” is the word Heather Mitchell uses to describe her state of mind upon learning about the charges against Rev. Nico VanderStoel. The 74-year-old St.
The minister at St. Stephen's on the Hill United Church, Rev. Nico VanderStoel, has been charged with manslaughter in his wife's death. Photo by Heather Green-Oliver.

“Dumbfounded” is the word Heather Mitchell uses to describe her state of mind upon learning about the charges against Rev. Nico VanderStoel.

The 74-year-old St. Stephen's on the Hill United Church minister was charged March 26 with manslaughter and allegedly failing to provide the necessities of life to his wife, Heather VanderStoel, who died April 6, 2011, at the age of 66.

Greater Sudbury Police started investigating Rev. VanderStoel March 31, 2011 after his wife was admitted to Health Sciences North's emergency department.

"The investigation was lengthy, due to interviews with witnesses, but also because a lot of the information is medical related, and we needed to get warrants to access that information," said Const. Meghan O'Malley, media relations officer with Greater Sudbury Police Service. "Once we compiled that information, it was sent to a medical specialist for review."

Heather VanderStoel who, according to her obituary, had lived with multiple sclerosis for more than 40 years, died as a result of injuries sustained through the alleged neglect of her only caregiver — her husband, police say.


Rev. VanderStoel has been released from police custody after appearing in bail court March 26. 

Based on those factors, police believe the appropriate charges have been laid, she said.

Mitchell, the secretary of St. Stephen's parish council, said she didn't know Heather, as she was already bedridden due to her multiple sclerosis when the couple moved to Sudbury about five years ago.

“Anything I ever heard of him speak of his wife, he was very devoted to her,” she said. “She was very severely handicapped.”

She did add, however, that the congregation at the Lauzon Street church “all knew he'd been going through a difficult time with trying to provide care for her and have a full-time job.”

Mitchell said she attended Heather's funeral, along with most of the rest of the church's congregation.

As for the charges, she said she doesn't know anything about the reasons why they've been laid.

“I believe implicitly in him,” Mitchell said. “We are trying to support him through this difficult time. I've already phoned and left a message.”

She describes Rev. VanderStoel as a “very compassionate man” who has been “super” for St. Stephen's.

“We were kind of foundering at the time, and he stepped in and pulled the congregation together,” Mitchell said. “He's been terrific as far as the congregation is concerned.”

Heather VanderStoel's obituary said she will always be remembered by Rev. VanderStoel “for her kindness, love and very positive outlook on life in spite of the way MS slowed down her life.”

It also said she received her MA from the University of Manitoba, and taught for 21 years in the Seven Oaks School Division in Winnipeg before moving to Ontario with her husband. “Much to her regret,” her teaching career ended due to her illness.

Northern Life attempted to contact Rev. VanderStoel at his home, but he was unavailable for comment.

St. Stephen's Sunday school superintendent, Cindy Czigarenko, hadn't heard about the charges until Northern Life phoned her March 27. She said she was “totally stunned” by the news.

“The whole thing was very sad,” Czigarenko said. “As far as I know, he was very devoted to her, and certainly was really broken up by her passing away.”
She said she'd never met Heather because the woman was bedridden, “and had been for a long time.”

Czigarenko said she thinks the couple had been married for more than 40 years when Heather died. They'd met while attending university in Manitoba, she said.
As for Rev. VanderStoel's character, Czigarenko said he's a “very nice man” who has done a good job in his role at St. Stephen's.

...he'd been going through a difficult time with trying to provide care for her and have a full-time job.

Heather Mitchell,
secretary of St. Stephen's on the Hill United Church

“Like I said, he's been a really good minister,” she said. “I'm totally stunned. Totally, totally stunned.”

St. Stephen's on the Hill United Church falls under the jurisdiction of the Manitou Conference of the United Church of Canada.

The executive secretary of Manitou Conference, Rev. Dr. Will Kunder, was busy dealing with the fallout from the charges against Rev. VanderStoel when contacted by Northern Life March 27.

“I think you'd appreciate that to receive this kind of news about any colleague, it's hard to hear,” Kunder said. “It wasn't what I was expecting to have on my plate in the middle of holy week, quite frankly.”

He said he'd met Rev. VanderStoel many times at church meetings, but didn't really know anything about his personal life.

Rev. VanderStoel became a minister in 1982, and although he originally came from out west, had been working in Ontario for some time, Kunder said. He came out of retirement to take on the job at St. Stephen's. 

As far as Kunder knows, Rev. VanderStoel had been doing a good job as the church's pastor. But his days as a minister could be at an end. 

Kunder said he and other top church officials in the region will be meeting with representatives of St. Stephen's to determine whether Rev. VanderStoel should be suspended from his job as the case works its way through the courts.

A more permanent decision will be made once a verdict is reached.

The same process is followed with any United Church minister charged with a criminal offence, Kunder said.

The chair of the Sudbury chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada said she has no idea what Rev. VanderStoel “did or didn't do,” adding that the society never had any contact with the minister or his wife.

What Laurel Ireland said she does know is that the caregivers of those with multiple sclerosis have a “tough row to hoe.”

Caregivers are left in the lurch because the government doesn't usually provide 24/7 home care services, she said. The VanderStoels' story should act as a wake-up call to the government regarding the need for home care services, Ireland said.

Many marriages break up due to multiple sclerosis because a husband or wife doesn't want to devote their lives to caring for their partner's every need, she said.

Those who do choose to become caregivers — and she said she knows of many who are “bloody angels” for what they do — are often under extreme stress, Ireland said.

Many people become a caregiver “with the best of intentions and a good heart,” but they can only do it for so long without enough support, she said.

“Without adequate support, and maybe no other family members, the person with the disease is totally at the mercy of those who are in their world – their very small world.”

Ireland said people suffer from MS in different ways. Some have a flare-up of symptoms, but then never experience them again. For others, their symptoms periodically worsen and then go away. In some cases, the disease steadily progresses, leaving them increasingly more disabled.

“To be quite frank with you, you do not see MS on many death certificates,” Ireland said. “Because it's an autoimmune disease, and it compromises the body, they generally go from something else.”

Heidi Ulrichsen

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