September 20, 2019

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Nuns bid heartfelt goodbye to Winnipeg

Sisters were active members of their community and leave a lasting legacy

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Sister Bernadette O’Reilly (left) and Sister Margaret Hughes lived in the city for 40 years and touched the lives of thousands of people through their work at Rossbrook House.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Sister Bernadette O’Reilly (left) and Sister Margaret Hughes lived in the city for 40 years and touched the lives of thousands of people through their work at Rossbrook House.

After four decades of opening their hearts and home to neighbours, the Roman Catholic Sisters of Sion are reluctantly packing up their belongings and leaving Winnipeg at the end of the month.

Sister Bernadette O’Reilly and Sister Margaret Hughes, the last two local members of the Sisters of Sion, are moving to Saskatoon to live with more than a dozen other members of their religious community.

“It’s going to be very hard to leave,” the Toronto-born O’Reilly said of their 40 years in the Centennial neighbourhood — 38 of them in a 2½-storey house on Elgin Avenue, which was once home to eight women.

“It’s been a blessing to be here. We found ourselves doing things we never imagined ourselves doing.”

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After four decades of opening their hearts and home to neighbours, the Roman Catholic Sisters of Sion are reluctantly packing up their belongings and leaving Winnipeg at the end of the month.

Sister Bernadette O’Reilly and Sister Margaret Hughes, the last two local members of the Sisters of Sion, are moving to Saskatoon to live with more than a dozen other members of their religious community.

"It’s going to be very hard to leave," the Toronto-born O’Reilly said of their 40 years in the Centennial neighbourhood — 38 of them in a 2½-storey house on Elgin Avenue, which was once home to eight women.

"It’s been a blessing to be here. We found ourselves doing things we never imagined ourselves doing."

Some of those things included opposing city hall’s proposed Sherbrook-McGregor overpass and teaching teenagers how to knit, recalled Sister Lesley Sacouman, former co-director at Rossbrook House, a neighbourhood drop-in centre founded in 1976.

She said funds only stretched to pay for O’Reilly to work as an educational assistant instead of a teacher at Rossbrook’s Eagles’ Circle alternative school, so they were forced to be creative in programming.

"I asked her if she had any other skills than teaching," said Sacouman, now director of the Holy Names House of Peace on Edmonton Street. "She had all these street kids knitting these crazy socks."

The Sisters of Sion leave Winnipeg less than a year after the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary moved from their Ross Avenue home to retirement housing in St. Boniface, marking the end of an era of nuns’ involvement at Rossbrook House, executive director Phil Chiappetta said.

Both groups of nuns were actively involved in the community drop-in centre for children and youth located in a former church at the corner of Sherbrook and Ross, with O’Reilly serving as co-director for more than 20 years and Hughes teaching at its Indigenous alternative schools.

"Their presence was never overtly religious," Chiappetta said of the nuns. "They were dealing with everyone respectfully and on an equal basis."

He said O’Reilly and Hughes leave a huge legacy, including the establishment of an annual powwow and mentoring of thousands of children.

"There was always a crowd of children and youth around them when they were actively involved at Rossbrook House or at Wi Wabigooni school, because they reflected all the preciousness of each child back at them," he wrote in an email message.

Wi Wabigooni is an off-site program of Victoria-Albert School, supporting Indigenous students in grades 4 to 6 who are disengaged from school.

As those children grew up, some stayed as volunteers or staff and worked alongside the sisters, said property co-ordinator Lloyd Michaud, who studied with O’Reilly at Rising Sun, the alternative high school associated with Rossbrook House.

"If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know where I would be today," said Michaud, first hired at Rossbrook at 15.

"They were pretty visible in the neighbourhood, in being available and connected to people, not only socially, but in a crisis," said operations manager Warren Goulet, on staff since 1976.

Reilly said her order decided to move to Winnipeg from Toronto, after an earlier sojourn in Fort Garry, because they wanted to live and work in solidarity with people deprived of basic human rights. They met with the Sisters of the Holy Names to discuss joining the work at Rossbrook House, and moved to a rented house on Elgin Avenue in 1979, buying their own property down the street two years later.

"We would see kids at the grocery store and we would see the kids on the street," said Hughes, 70, of how their work and lives intersected.

"Kids knew we were here and they knew they could come if they needed to," said O’Reilly, 75, who entered religious life in 1973 after the sudden death of her husband of only nine months.

"Our houses were really an extension of Rossbrook House."

After a half-lifetime at one place, both O’Reilly and Hughes are convinced their legacy won’t be the programs and schools they started, but the relationships they’ve nurtured. They’re confident the work at Rossbrook will continue in its own way.

"I think the thing that makes (leaving) easy is nothing we’ve started is going to end when we leave," O’Reilly said. "Things have gone a different direction, but the spirit remains."

Neither Hughes nor O’Reilly are retiring, saying they will look for new opportunities to work for justice and reconciliation in Saskatoon.

"We love what we do," O’Reilly said. "As long as we can, we will."

They plan to return to Winnipeg to attend the annual powwow in May, as well as the fall open house at Rossbrook.

Brenda Suderman

Brenda Suderman
Faith reporter

Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.

Read full biography

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