Bob McKeon

JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

December 21, 2015

I am now at an age where I regularly read the obituary notices in the Edmonton Journal each morning looking for familiar names. Last month I saw the obituary notice for Sister Mary Leo Kirwin, a Sister of St. Joseph, who died in London, Ont., at the age of 93.

The obituary notice took me back over 30 years when we served together on a community board in the first years of the Edmonton Inner City Housing Society (EICHS). Sister Mary Leo came out to Alberta in 1983 after working for many years as a home economics teacher in southwest Ontario.

She was in her early sixties when she came to Edmonton to serve as regional superior for a large convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph of London, Ont.

She soon joined a group that I was part of that was working to start a low-income housing organization in inner city Edmonton. It was a mixed group of neighbourhood people, agency reps and members of faith communities.

Sr. Mary Leo Kirwin

BETA PHOTOS

Sr. Mary Leo Kirwin

There was a sense of vision, but little money and at this point no houses. Sister Mary Leo fit right in. She agreed to join the board and serve as treasurer for this high-risk community venture. She came with strong administrative skills, and was an excellent steward of our modest funds.

HOUSING VISION

She helped form the vision of providing safe, secure and affordable housing for those in need and helped to lay the organizational foundations for a housing society that would grow quickly. She joined in with a diverse group of people and trusted an open-ended community process.

Through her religious community, she was able to donate funds at some crucial moments, and host board retreats and planning sessions at her convent in north Edmonton.

Soon the society opened its first housing project, Home House, a five-bedroom house in the McCauley neighbourhood, funded entirely by donations. Thirty years later, the Edmonton Inner City Housing Society (EICHS) has grown to the point where it now owns and manages more than 20 housing developments for individuals and families, 500 people in 300 housing units, in Edmonton's inner city neighbourhoods.

Over the years, EICHS has remained faithful to the founding values which Sister Mary Leo helped to establish.

WOMEN'S PRISON

Shortly after arriving in Edmonton, Sister Mary Leo started visiting at the Edmonton Women's Prison. She saw that there was a major problem for women leaving prison to find affordable housing.

With her religious community, she purchased a large house in a downtown neighbourhood. A sister in her community served as "housemother," providing safe, affordable housing in what became known as Elizabeth House for women in need leaving prison and facing other life challenges.

Later, her community purchased another house, called Tess's House, named after Sister Tess, the "housemother," who assisted at risk young adults with housing.

Sister Mary Leo was in Edmonton for only eight years (1983-91). Her legacy is not in bricks and mortar, monuments or public acclaim. Rather, it is in the dynamic community groups she helped to found and guide in their formative years, and in the lives of the people she assisted.

The story of Sister Mary Leo and the Sisters of St. Joseph of London (now part of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada) is one of several accounts of members of different religious orders getting involved in grassroots community engagements and leaving lasting legacies in inner city Edmonton in the years since the Second Vatican Council.

RELIGIOUS CONGREGATIONS

It is important to remember these inner city stories as part of the Edmonton celebrations for the 2015 Year of Consecrated Life. Today in inner city Edmonton, fewer members of religious congregations are active in the community.

Those who continue are getting older. Many of the buildings, including Sister Mary Leo's convent, have been sold. Their contributions are very much missed.

The work of some religious communities continues through groups of lay associates. Increasingly, if this important Gospel-inspired work is to continue, it will need to be led by lay women and men. How this will be organized and supported is still very much a work in progress.

(Bob McKeon: rmckeon55@gmail.com)