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Sisters and daughters

Order celebrates decades of educating girls

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Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary celebrate 140 years in Manitoba at St. Mary's Academy. From left sisters Johanna Jonker, Charlotte Leake, Leonne Dumesnil, Mary Gorman, Michelle Garlinski.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary celebrate 140 years in Manitoba at St. Mary's Academy. From left sisters Johanna Jonker, Charlotte Leake, Leonne Dumesnil, Mary Gorman, Michelle Garlinski. Photo Store

Like many elementary school teachers, Sister Charlotte Leake expects to run into some personal questions when she's heading up her class of Grade 2s.

But as a member of the Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, a Roman Catholic order dedicated to teaching, Leake's students sometimes make a few huge assumptions.

"One of the little kids went to home and said to his mom, 'My teacher is God's sister'," explains the teacher at St. Gerard School, a Catholic school in Winnipeg's Elmwood neighbourhood.

"They (the students) want to know why I am a sister, am I married to someone, do I have kids?"

Now nearing the end of her teaching career, Leake, 64, has the dubious distinction of being the last member of the religious order still in the school system.

Last June, Sister Susan Wikeem retired as director of St. Mary's Academy, founded by the SNJM in 1902. She was the last nun to run the Grade 7 to 12 girls' school.

Founded in Quebec in 1843, the Roman Catholic order celebrates 140 years in Manitoba with an open house for its past students and supporters from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 24, at Cathedral Manor, 321 Cathedral Ave. The Cathedral Avenue retirement home once housed St. Joseph's Academy, established by the order in 1898.

"They came to Manitoba specifically to take over the schools for English-speaking parishioners from the Grey Nuns," explains retired teacher and principal Mary Gorman, now archivist at St. Mary's Academy.

The nuns taught in many of the city's Catholic schools, including St. Ignatius, St. John Brebeuf, the St. Mary's Cathedral school, and of course St. Mary's Academy.

A member of their order, the late Sister Geraldine MacNamara, founded Rossbrook House in 1975, a drop-in centre for inner-city youth.

At one time, about 250 nuns were based in Manitoba, but now the order here is down to 42, with all but two retired. Members of the order also live in the United States, Quebec, Ontario, and Lesotho.

Considering their focus on education, it's not surprising the retired teachers and principals organizing the anniversary event want to teach a little about their past -- and their future -- to any students who return to celebrate with them.

They've gathered statistics, pictures of their former schools, and created slideshows and display boards. They also expect to hear some tales from both in and out of class, as well as connecting with former students.

"It's so interesting to see what our students are doing and see their contribution to the church and the city and the province, and the world," says Gorman.

The sisters are a bit more humble about their own contribution to education in Manitoba -- and their commitment to social justice and the arts-- including the development of French-language instruction.

"Our sisters certainly carried the load to ensure that French-speaking students learned their (own language)," says Sister Leonne Dumesnil, described by her fellow nuns as the "mother of French immersion in Manitoba."

Even as the nuns celebrate their strong legacy of education, they realize their future in Manitoba is uncertain. That doesn't deter Michelle Garlinksi from taking steps to join the order.

"For me as a younger person looking into vowed membership, I don't see myself alone in this charism," says Garlinksi, 44, director of campus ministry at St. Mary's Academy.

"It will look different, but it looked different 100 years ago."

brenda@suderman.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 23, 2014 D15

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