EMOTIONAL SHADOWS OF THE DEAD and the desperate linger as Sister Lesley Sacouman takes a visitor on a tour of her home street in Winnipeg’s gritty North End. Several of the houses along Ross Avenue—including the former junkies’ haven next door to where Sacouman and two fellow nuns reside—are boarded up and abandoned, a sad legacy of the street-gang violence that has plagued the area in recent years. For Sacouman, who has spent long, anxious nights watching teenagers square off with baseball bats in her backyard and listening to gunfire ring through the neighbourhood, there are reminders of tragedy everywhere. She points to four houses where residents have taken their own lives and another across the back alley where a murder-suicide occurred. “That’s all in the last 10 years,” she observes. “Life is very fragile here.”
Fragile, yes, but not hopeless—thanks in no small measure to the efforts of Sister Lesley, as she is known among North Enders. For more than two decades, Sacouman has worked at Rossbrook House, a drop-in centre and alternative school program for inner-city youth founded by Sister Geraldine MacNamara and a group of street kids in 1976. Since MacNamara’s death from cancer in 1984, Sacouman has served as Rossbrook’s co-director in the former United Church located on the same ravaged street where she doggedly chooses to live. For local youth—the vast majority of them aboriginal—Rossbrook provides an alternative to street gangs and chaotic family lives. Its school programs, with about 75 students from Grades 1 through 12, help bring chronic truants back to the classroom. The Rossbrook motto is simple, yet eloquent: “No child who does not want to be alone, should ever have to be.”
At 54, Sacouman looks at least a decade younger; her piercing blue eyes and quick smile attest to what friends describe as her indomitable spirit.
After graduating from high school, the Winnipeg native joined the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, a religious community that focuses on education and the poor, which is where she met MacNamara. Rossbrook took shape after the two nuns moved to the inner city in 1971. Soon enough, young people were dropping by and so, says Sacouman with a laugh, “we bought what every good convent needs—a pool table.” As they heard more about the children’s troubled lives, the sisters recognized the need for a full-time, freestanding facility where youngsters could socialize and be treated with respect. Originally, Rossbrook served kids between 14 and 17, but, incredibly, it has lately attracted walk-ins as young as 3, a development Sacouman describes as “simply scary.”
Sacouman sees her work as a logical application of her faith. “It’s not a job; it’s my life,” she says. And despite the hardships she witnesses daily,
Sacouman says she has only once bordered on despair. That was a few summers ago, when the gang violence on her block was at its worst and she couldn’t sleep at night. Sacouman remembers thinking: “I can’t do this anymore, I have to leave. But then I realized, yes, I do have the resources to get away, but the people I know and love don’t have that option.” Sister Lesley persisted, and Winnipeg’s meanest streets are a little less daunting because of her devotion.
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