Advocate for Inner City Youth

The 1997 inductee, the late Sister Geraldine MacNamara, spent the last nine years of her life making inner city Winnipeg a better place for kids to grow up.  Even upon learning she had terminal cancer with only a remote chance of surviving five years, “Sister Mac” as she was called by many, pressed on saying she wanted to use the time left to her working for Rossbrook House – the drop-in centre she created.

Born in Toronto in 1938, and raised in Winnipeg, she chose her calling at age 24.  The Sisters of the Holy Names, is a teaching order, and at high schools in Winnipeg and Flin Flon, Sister Gerry became known as a “crackerjack teacher” who won the students’ hearts by challenging their minds.  In 1971, she moved out of the convent and rented a house in the oldest inner city neighbourhood.  She helped set up neighbourhood programs such as free meals on Sundays when soup kitchens were not open.  The same year, Sister Gerry enrolled in law school but never did complete her articling at Manitoba Legal because she had enough working knowledge of the law to help her inner city neighbourhoods.

In 1976, Rossbrook House opened.  It is a drop-in centre where young people can find sanctuary from the boredom and temptations of the streets.  Under Sister Gerry’s leadership, it expanded from no money and resources to meet the needs of up to 200 teenagers a day with a staff of 23.  The centre was open until 1 a.m. on winter weekdays and 24 hours a day on weekends, holidays and summer.  She opened alternative schools for native children who dropped out of regular schools.  For her, 20 hour days were not uncommon.  After all, there is work to be done.

Before Sister Gerry retired in 1983 due to her illness, she wrote guidelines for every aspect of Rossbrook House's operation.  During her time at Rossbrook House, she had used her keen political savvy to obtain major funding support for the drop-in centre and block a major overpass that would have destroyed it and the surrounding neighbourhood.  To top it off, she got politicians to pledge $96 million for inner city needs.  She helped set up the Industrial Skills Training Centre with the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce and with a coalition of agencies persuaded city council to approve a nonprofit housing scheme.

Sister Gerry’s demonstrated political acumen garnered requests for her to run for two provincial parties and city council.  It was not to be, as she already was looking after her constituency – the young and poor.

Too ill to travel, Sister Gerry received the Order of Canada on October 14, 1983 from Governor-General Edward Schreyer at Rossbrook House.  500 people attended this very special occasion held in her honour.  In 1984, “Sister Mac” passed away leaving behind a great legacy in Rossbrook House,and hope for hundreds of inner city kids who were fortunate enough to come in contact with her.

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