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Sister lauded for refugee work

By James Buchok


WINNIPEG — The Winnipeg community of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions recently celebrated Sister Aileen Gleason’s 70th anniversary of religious profession, her platinum jubilee, honouring her for a life of service to others and for changing the lives of thousands of refugees.

“It has been 70 years of hope and promise, a path of walking with Christ, to serve in many diverse ways,” said Sister Veronica Dunne, leadership co-ordinator for the community.

Two of Gleason’s brothers attended the celebration at St. Benedict Monastery, Joe from Winnipeg and Pat from Toronto, and her sister Bernadette from Humboldt, Sask. A niece played violin and mass was celebrated by Rev. Sam Argenziano, followed by a reception.

Gleason was a school teacher and principal for 25 years, then leader of the RNDM community in Rome from 1974 to 1983, then she lived and worked on the Sandy Bay First Nation in her home province of Saskatchewan; she was born in Watson.

In 1992, supported by her community, Gleason established Hospitality House Refugee Ministry in Winnipeg, but her interest began in Rome seeing young Ethiopian men living on the streets, their lives on hold. The sister sought and found sponsorships for many of them through her Canadian connections.

In 1986 Manitoba‘s Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions affirmed their commitment to refugees and Gleason was asked to develop a comprehensive refugee program. The commitment was further strengthened in 1990 when the Congregational Chapter, held in Rome with delegates from some 18 countries, named refugees as a top mission priority for the RNDMs.

In 1992 Gleason, supported by Rev. Jim Wolf of the Anglican Diocese of Rupert’s Land, established Hospitality House and welcomed its first refugee, Asha, from Somalia.

Over the years, Gleason has initiated thousands of refugee sponsorships, most of whom she welcomed at the airport and then companioned with them as they settled into their new life in Canada.

In 2002, Gleason retired as co-ordinator at Hospitality House at the age of 78. She then went to Kenya for an 18-month term to help expedite the refugee process for those in refugee camps. She stayed until 2007.

Hospitality House is financially supported by faith communities, including the Archdiocese of Winnipeg and Roman Catholic parishes, and the Anglican Cathedral of St. John, but also the United Church of Canada and Presbyterian parishes. Important support also comes from private foundations and individual donors.

Tom Denton, longtime director of Hospitality House, arrived at the celebration from the Winnipeg airport where 20 refugees had just arrived, bringing the total for this year, to date, to a record number of 615.

Of Gleeson’s contributions over the years, Denton said simply, “Aileen has done a great job.”

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