Book explores spiritualisty, justice link
By Richard Clark
Eleanor Stebner, J.S. Woodsworth Chair in the Humanities
atSimon Fraser University, will be the featured speaker
at Blaine’s inaugural public International Day
of Peace vigil, September 21, 7 p.m., at the community’s
performing arts center. Admission is free.
Dr. Stebner’s biography of Sister Geraldine Edna MacNamara covers the life of a Roman Catholic nun who fought city hall in order save an old neighborhood and Rossbrook House, an abandoned church that the feisty nun had salvaged as a shelter for alienated aboriginal youths.
Plans had been scheduled in 1978 to bisect Winnipeg by means of a massive street and overpass project – a reminder of what happened to Blaine in 1964. Vigorously opposed, she declared it destructive and dysfunctional. “MacNamara was especially enraged that the people whom this decision affected most directly were not consulted,” notes the biographer. Public opposition kept mounting. Sister Mac eventually won her case. But it wasn’t easy.
Geraldine, the adopted daughter of Baden and Ruby MacNamara, was initially raised in Toronto, but the family moved to Winnipeg when she was five. Reared a Protestant, her childhood education was gained at St. Mary’s Academy, a Roman Catholic school with a strong academic reputation. After converting to Catholicism, she eventually affiliated with the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. Her aim of becoming a nun was fulfilled. Her friends believed she would readily accept the vows of chastity and poverty. Obedience? That was questionable.
Sister Mac was unable to separate spirituality from social justice. And justice entailed action. She felt firmly called to forge social change for Winnipeg’s urban poor, particularly the alienated aboriginals. To that end, she earned a law degree from the University of Manitoba.
While it was commonly thought additional police patrol would solve the social problems of Winnipeg, Sister Mac argued that a social center would be better, hence Rossbrook House. Rossbrook addressed a pressing need for community. With the overpass project defeated, Rossbrook became such a success that it thrives to this day (open www.rossbrookhouse.ca for details).
It took time for Sister Mac’s accomplishments to be recognized, but she was eventually honored with the Order of Canada at Rossbrook House in 1983. Unfortunately, she was dying and barely able to participate in the ceremony. Still, she was able to say a few words. “You know, Rossbrook stands for one very simple principle,” she said. “Just one. Nothing else. And that is that no child who doesn’t want to be alone ever has to be.”
Sister Mac had been particularly drawn to support disenchanted native boys, and when she died of cancer at the age 45, they openly grieved as they carried her casket to her funeral in February 1984.