Sisters tend to the city's outcasts

May 16, 2011
Sr. Estela Andaya, right and volunteers such as Olli Bagshaw, left, distribute food to the hungry at Anawim, Place.


Sr. Estela Andaya, right and volunteers such as Olli Bagshaw, left, distribute food to the hungry at Anawim, Place.


EDMONTON — Whether through a ministry of presence, feeding the hungry or housing battered women, several orders of sisters have a readiness to lend a hand for Edmonton's most underprivileged inner city residents.

The Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement have been providing services in Edmonton since 1928. Today, they operate the Lurana Shelter, named after foundress Lurana White who supported women at a time in history when women did not experience equality. Sister Lucinda May Patterson runs the Lurana Shelter, which helps meet the needs of women and children fleeing domestic violence.

Medical Mission Sisters Estelle Demers and Teresa Arac were largely responsible for the formation of the Boyle-McCauley Health Centre that opened in 1980.

Having helped organize community health projects around the world, the order took up the cause in inner city Edmonton where residents faced some of the same health care challenges as Third World countries. Often without homes, transportation and money, the poor could not easily access hospitals, medical clinics and pharmacies.

While the Medical Mission Sisters have since left, the centre they founded remains Edmonton's only non-profit, community-owned health centre, providing a range of primary health services to those with limited access.

Another ministry with the people of the inner city is Anawim Place, a food bank run by the Sisters of Providence. Under their sponsorship and the help of volunteers, the sisters have been feeding the hungry since November 1988. Twice a week it serves as an emergency resource for those in need.


"It has generally been our charism to serve the underprivileged and those who are in need. That was the beginning of our congregation," said Sister Estela Andaya, who took over as the coordinator of the food bank in April 2010. "Mother Emilie Gamelin in her time worked in inner city Montreal. She housed the old people that did not have homes."

Gamelin founded the Sisters of Providence and lived in Montreal from 1800 to 1851. Her parents taught her to help those who were needy or suffering. The young widow put all her energy into helping the poor, sick and oppressed.

Providence institutional ministries have always been eclectic, meeting many needs. Whether caring for the sick or looking after orphaned kids, they carry out a ministry according to the needs requiring the most immediate attention.


"In my past work I was a nurse by profession. I worked in our hospitals in the North, working with the Indians sometimes," said Andaya.

"Then, before I was appointed to Anawim Place, I was working as a multicultural health broker. I worked with the poor people, the new immigrants and the Filipinos who come here with no one."

Anawim is an acronym for A Necessary Alternative Welcomed In Mercy. It is also a Hebrew word meaning, God's poor. The philosophy at Anawim Place is one of compassionate love for the disadvantaged. Service to others is rooted in this compassion.


Based in the inner city, most of the clients are living under difficult circumstances, eking out a living through AISH, social assistance or a small pension. Clients can pick up a food hamper once a month.

Sr. Marion Garneau

Sr. Marion Garneau

Andaya said the camaraderie and teamwork with the volunteers make it an enjoyable place to work. She also finds meeting the clients and hearing their stories to be fulfilling.

"Working at Anawim Place gives young sisters a cultural experience. They come from Chile, Africa, Vietnam and Seattle," said Andaya.

Respecting those who live in poverty is a precept that Sister Marion Garneau learned from her father.

Garneau recalls growing up in Edmonton's inner city following the Second World War with a Japanese family living nearby. While people wanted the family off the street, her father petitioned to keep them in the neighbourhood.

When it comes to options for the poor, Garneau's order, the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception, follow the ideals of Sts. Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, saints dedicated to serving the disadvantaged, renowned for their compassion, humility and generosity. A painting of the two saints is on the wall of Garneau's inner city home.


Her order was founded around the time of the Irish Potato Famine, from 1845 to 1852. It was a time of mass starvation, cholera and emigration. Irish families set sail to Canada on coffin ships. In Saint John, N.B., the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception cared for the indigent and dying people.

Her order's traditions of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and comforting the afflicted carry on today.

Garneau lived in Peru for nine years where she learned firsthand about the strengths, gifts and values of those who live in poverty. When she returned to Edmonton, she became a part of Inner City Pastoral Ministry, an interdenominational Christian ministry of presence.


"Helping the poor has always been in our tradition, and it's been expressed in many different ways. But today one of the places where the poor are is in and around the inner city," said Garneau.

The Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception coordinate the Inner City Pastoral Ministry, formed in 1978. Garneau walks alongside the people of Edmonton's Boyle-McCauley neighbourhood. She provides pastoral care, helping people who are low-income, homeless or living in shelters. Many of them have addictions to drugs or alcohol. About 60 per cent are First Nations, Metis or Inuit.

"I find that we're at our best selves when we're doing work for justice. Among the different Church traditions, we find that we have so much in common," said Garneau.

The ecumenical Congregation of Emmanuel is drawn from the many people within the inner city. The worship community gathers in the Bissell Centre, with an average attendance exceeding 100. More than 90 churches provide and serve lunch every Sunday after the church service. More than 12,000 lunches were served in 2010.


Women's Wellness is a ministry overseen by Garneau and Linda Winski. They respond on many levels to the needs of women who find themselves for a time on the street.

"Their experience of civil society is such that they are marginalized, they're outcasts, they're not valued, they don't have a voice," said Winski, a pastoral associate. They suffer the disdain that is often given to those who suffer addictions and mental illness.

While they may feel as though their souls and bodies are broken, the ministry lets them know that God still cares. It tries to alleviate the loneliness, pain and shame. They provide pastoral care through counselling, visitation and social concern.

"Everyone's journey has been different," said Winski. It's not their fault and any one of us could be there.

"People don't choose a life of poverty, or a life of living with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. People don't choose a life of prostitution. Our responsibility is to embrace them as a part of that total culture of the human family."