Remembering Sister Jane

Sister Jane’s drop-in Center, Chez Nous, operated in an old bank building at the corner of Main Street and Higgins Avenue. When Jane was sick, the Center was frequently closed. When Jane died, her friends and supporters on the Board of directors of the non-profit corporation were left with a decision to sell the building, or to try to carry on Sister Jane’s work.
They have carried on. Jane’s therapist and friend Vicki Frankel helped the Board to reorganize itself. The Board members trained themselves to work in the drop-in Center, and they found and trained more volunteers. They raised money, and they kept the doors open. The Archdiocese of Winnipeg has been recognizing their work, and Sister Jane’s work in taking collections and publicizing the work of Chez Nous in its internal newsletter in May 2004.

On Sunday May 16, 2004, Chez Nous held an open house to unveil a plaque in memory of Sister Jane. I arrived late and missed the unveiling. The Archbishop of Winnipeg was there, which meant a lot to Jane’s Catholic friends who saw it as supportive of Jane and her calling to work with the poor. I spoke with some of Jane’s friends about how they were handling work with addicts and street people, and how they managed their safety and emotional boundaries with needy and sometimes dangerous people. I looked at the comfortable old furniture, the posters, the pictures of visitors and volunteers. Again, I was moved to realize that while Chez Nous offers little in the way of financial support, it tries to provide a safe respite from the street, with respect and love. I realized again that Sister Jane, from her own pain and confusion, had been true to her calling and true to the Gospel message of loving the poor.

I wasn’t able to stay long because I found myself breaking down into tears. I don’t think it was honest grief for Sister Jane, although I believe that her life and death were painful and sad. It was a more personal grief, of a self-pitying kind.

Jane’s case also marked some turning points in my life. When I met Jane in late 2001 I was a few months past a series of surgical procedures and a diagnosis – incorrect as it happened – of colo-rectal cancer. I had started to go to Church again, after years of skepticism and anger at the Church. I was rejoicing in not having cancer, and in having had an explanation and an end to years of GI tract problems. However, my son was growing away from the family, and my wife was becoming desperately sad about n. and angrily disappointed that I was more skeptical than ever about her favoured spirituality – the New Age. As I worked on Jane’s case, I read about questionable Alternative therapies and human growth movements. Some books and articles directly indicted my wife’s parents, friends and counsellors. For instance Singer and Lalich’s book “Crazy Therapies” had a chapter on Neuro-Linguistic Therapy which was one of my mother-in-law’s strong interests. My wife and her parents did not like my research into cults and quack therapies. My wife became convinced that my negative and skeptical attitude to life was the main cause for our son’s estrangement and rebellion and our daughter’s emotional problems during her childhood and mid-teen years. Eventually she said that I was hurting her by criticizing the New Age, and demanded a divorce.

Visiting Chez Nous this past Sunday brought that sharply and painfully into focus. I don’t blame my decision to take Jane’s case for the changes in my own life. I think working with and for Jane has helped me, then and now, to understand what I believe in, and to accept that life comes with pain and loss.

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