Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 18, 2002
Book chronicles life of inner city sister
Gem: The Life of Sister Mac: Geraldine MacNamara, by Eleanor Stebner. Ottawa: Novalis, 2001. 105 pages.
Review by DEAN SARNECKI
Special to the WCR
Geraldine MacNamara was a Catholic nun who, feeling called to work with the poor and homeless in inner city Winnipeg, creates a centre called Rossbrook.
When the centre is threatened with closure because Winnipeg city council decides it needs a new bridge over the railyards in the city core to move the people of the middle class from the suburbs to downtown, she becomes a community activist to resist the destruction of her life work.
She successfully fights city hall and is awarded the Order of Canada in 1983. Six months later she dies of cancer.
This is an outline of the book by Eleanor Stebner, a theologian and writer from the University of Manitoba and a contributor to the Out of the Ordinary series of Biographies by Novalis Books.
In five brief chapters, Stebner recounts the significant life events in what I perceive to be a fascinating role model and activist for the poor in Canada.
Yet, after reading the book; a quite easy and short read, I do not feel that I have really met the real Sister Mac. Although she lived a life that on the surface sounds exciting and meaningful, the story progresses slowly and each event appears to never be fully explained.
MacNamara, a child adopted into a Protestant household, never really connects with her parents, father an undertaker and mother an alcoholic, and ends up in a Catholic school and is befriended by some of the nuns.
She converts to Catholicism in her twenties, and though according to friends is happily in a relationship, she decides to join the order of nuns that educated her. The reasons for many of her actions at this early stage of her life are never made clear.
After joining a teaching order and spending some time in the classroom in Flin Flon and Winnipeg, MacNamara encounters the early writings of liberation theologians Galilea and Boff and starts to examine her own community of Winnipeg.
She completes a law degree and sets up a centre, Rossbrook, in the inner city to provide a safe place and counselling to those who seem to have been missed by the system.
Stebner describes the work as a socio-spiritual biography. Her intent appears to be an investigation of the influences of sociological and political systems on MacNamara and her response as influenced by her spirituality.
This is the goal of the book; it is definitely not hagiography, an attempt to raise MacNamara to sainthood. MacNamara is portrayed as a flawed character but one who lives and works for others.
As Rosemary Radford Ruether states in the foreword, "MacNamara's story is one of the radicalization of a middle-class white Canadian woman in a world not accustomed to radical stances." And that it was.
This book inspired me to learn more about the work of Sister Mac and the Rossbrook community. It is still an active ministry in the core of Winnipeg. MacNamara's work and achievements are worthy of investigation and praise and this is a good introduction to a life well lived.
(Dean Sarnecki is chaplain and religious studies teacher at Archbishop Jordan Catholic High School in Sherwood Park and sessional instructor in religious education at Newman Theological College and St. Joseph's College, University of Alberta, Edmonton.)