Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of August 29, 2005
Blanch has served for 75 years
Sister made her mark with the poor
By BILL GLEN
WCR Staff Writer
She uses a walker now and what she builds is limited to jigsaw puzzles.
But from Vancouver to New York, Sister Mary Gertrude Blanch, 92, is well remembered for her tireless work ethic and for expanding buildings that helped the lives of the needy and other Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement.
"Sister is a builder," said Sister Hope Fulcko, administrator of St. Joseph's Home where Blanch retired in 1998. St. Joseph's was opened some 30 years ago for retired Franciscan Sisters. And Blanch had a hand in getting construction started.
"Wherever she went, she had something to do with building," Fulcko said. "When she was on the community council at our motherhouse in (Graymoor) New York, she came out here to see what she could do to build this home."
St. Joseph's recently celebrated Blanch's 75 years as a Franciscan sister. More than 100 people attended the afternoon lunch and tea that Blanch thought no one would think to attend.
Blanch was born Aug. 7, 1913 in Stratton, Ont. She had eight brothers and four sisters, including retired archdiocesan priest Father Michael Blanch. Her sister Margaret also became a Franciscan sister.
In 1928, the family moved to Saskatchewan where she met a woman who was about to enter the order. A year later, Blanch received a letter from the woman asking Blanch if she felt a call to religious life.
"My mother had always asked us to pray to know our vocation," Blanch said. "We were very close. We prayed the rosary every night after supper."
In 1930, Blanch joined the Franciscan Sisters before her 17th birthday. She professed her vows in Graymoor in 1933.
In June 1934, Blanch was transferred to Edmonton where she helped care for children and older women at the Franciscan Sisters' Atonement Home for 22 years.
With the onset of the Depression and the Second World War, more and more children were sent to the home. It needed to expand so the order moved its house to its current location beside St. Joseph's at 110th Avenue and 92nd Street.
One six-year-old who showed up on the home's doorstep in 1940 was Don Stein, now pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Red Deer.
His mother was sickly and his father was headed overseas so Don was put into the care of the sisters for five years.
"I used to go home on most weekends and bring an orphaned boy with me to show him the appearance of home life," Stein said. "There were many factors why I became a priest but the sisters' example of dedication and prayer life and their kindness to us boarders and the orphans had an effect because those were impressionable years."
"Sister Gertrude was very understanding and kind. She was like our second mother," Stein said. "They treated us with tender loving care."
Stein remembers that on some nights there had to be two to a bed.
"I used to pray that we would get more rooms," Blanch said, who was put in charge of expanding the home in 1949.
In 1955 she was transferred to Vancouver where she helped the sisters and several lay women make sandwiches for nearly 1,000 homeless people daily.
Once a month they made a hot meal. The sisters started a clothing room for the homeless. They also operated a day care.
"I always felt good helping the poor," Blanch said. "I remember a man who came to the back door who needed a pair of shoes. I found him a pair and when he took his shoes off, he had no socks and his feet were full of sores.
"I took him in and got some warm water with some salt. He sat there with his feet in the water. Then I put white socks on him and a pair of shoes that fit him. The shoes he had were two sizes too small. I told him he could come back and I would take care of him again, but he never came back."
Tore down 'old shack'
In 1964, she returned to Graymoor where she ran the Lurana Home, a safe house for a dozen elderly women who lived alone and were afraid to go out alone. Blanch headed a team that tore down the "old shack" and built a small house that enabled more women to come.
For five years, Blanch served on the order's community council, overseeing the operations of the entire congregation.
"After 12 years in New York, I was given a choice to return to Edmonton or Vancouver. I chose Vancouver," she said.
That was 1976 and into the city's notorious East Side.
She assumed the task of getting a third floor built at the order's house complete with an electric chairlift. "I raised the roof, " Blanch said.
She also worked tirelessly to raise funds to help the needy.
In 1992, the Province of B.C. awarded Blanch a Confederation medal honouring her community service in Vancouver.
She retired to Edmonton in 1998.
"I enjoyed those 22 years in Vancouver," she said. "I enjoyed all of the places I worked. I always did what I had to do and I tried to do the best I could. That was a way I found fulfillment."
Her secret to longevity?
"Work hard, eat well and a lot of prayer," she said.
Blanch also maintains regular exercise. "I still walk as much as I can."