A long-time Thompson resident who educated many Northern Manitobans about Catholicism has been recalled to Toronto by her religious order after nearly three decades in the city.
Sister Andrea Dumont, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto who arrived in Thompson in 1991, will soon be leaving the city on her way back to Toronto to live with other members of the order in a residence there at the insistence of her superiors.
“Just after Christmas, the general congregational leader came for a visit … and told me she wanted to come back to Toronto,” Dumont explains. “She didn’t think that an 86-year-old should be living alone in an apartment and I have a vow of obedience so the decision was made.”
And while one of the things she says she’ll miss is something that even many northerners don’t relish - “I really did like the cold in the north” - Dumont says she’s approaching the next chapter of her life with open arms and an open mind.
“Right from the beginning, I was sorry that I had to leave because I love the parish and I love the north, but at the same I decided, ‘OK, I’ve got to be positive about this.’ My only brother that’s left lives in St. Catharines, which is close to Toronto and so I will be able to see him more than once a year. I don’t have to do any cooking because there’s a cafeteria and there’s lots of other advantages.”
The journey that brought Dumont to Thompson began more than 60 years ago, when she joined the Sisters of St. Joseph about a year after graduating from nursing school. She worked as a nurse in Windsor and then at the emergency department and in the nursing service office at St. Joseph’s Hospital before seeing a notice from the sisters seeking volunteers for some missionary work.
“I volunteered,” says Dumont. “I figured half the community would volunteer so I never really realized that I would be chosen but I was one of the ones chosen to go to Guatemala.”
She travelled there in 1968 and remained until 1982, when the political situation made it too dangerous to stay, encountering poverty and violence worse than anything she had seen before.
“The poor were really poor,” Dumont recalls. "There was no government aid, there was no welfare, there was no other assistance.”
Her nursing skills came in handy during that missionary posting.
“We used to go out to the rural areas and see people and look after them because there were no doctors of nurses out there,” says Dumont. “We set up a course for nursing assistants. The community had to choose somebody … that they trusted and would send in for the course and then we would give them basic nursing skills to treat the most common things which were diarrhea in children, infections and, of course, everybody in Guatemala had worms.”
As the civil war between the country’s military government and insurgent guerrillas worsened, that training came to include trauma techniques.
“We even taught them to give intravenous and this sort of thing because people were being killed,” Dumont recalls.
Dumont’s time in Guatemala, during which she saw a man pulled out of a truck and shot to death with a machine gun across the street from the house she lived in, ended with her and the other sisters departing with nothing more than one suitcase each when they learned that they were in danger from death squads.
“Some priests had already been murdered and a lot of our catechists had been murdered,” Dumont says. “It was a very tough decision to leave and the people said to us, ‘Go, we have enough martyrs and maybe you can help us from Canada,’ and so eventually we did go but without telling anybody.”
After a brief sojourn in Toronto, Dumont was assigned a posting in Northern Manitoba, splitting her time between Grand Rapids and Easterville. At first, she says, the culture shock of returning to Canada was significant, and she felt as if she wasn’t actually working with disadvantaged people.
“They were in an entirely different situation and I had to readjust,” says Dumont, who spent nine years in those communities before moving up to Thompson. The other nun who was here was looking after children’s liturgy, which didn’t interest Dumont, who instead provided religious education to adults during her 29 years in the parish.
“There’s what they call the RCIA - the rite of Christian initiation for adults - for people who are interested in becoming a Catholic,” says Dumont. “Besides that, there are adults who have never been confirmed or never received communion or just want an updating in their faith. That’s the kind of work that I did.”
She also created a course including DVDs, discussion questions and homework that she provided to people in outlying communities who were interested in helping others learn about Catholicism.
“For people who really want to help their parish and to teach their adults or to receive somebody into the church or prepare them for sacraments, it’s there,” Dumont says.
Pat Pegus said her husband Jim took Dumont’s course when he decided to convert to Catholicism, then continued going afterward because he enjoyed it so much.
Dumont also recruited Pegus into several roles over the years.
“Her optimism makes is very difficult to say no to her,” says Pegus, whose admiration for Dumont grew when she saw her during seniors’ fitness classes at Rotary Place. “As I struggled to keep up with the various exercises, I noticed that she didn’t struggle at all. She kept up with all of them and was able to do most of them way better than I could. She is really fit.”
Former Thompson resident Phyllis Wiscombe said Dumont was a big help to her when she was completing a program in ministry from St. Francis Xavier University and even attended her convocation in Nova Scotia. Dumont’s generosity towards other was also demonstrated by her regularly inviting the St. Lawrence priests over for dinner every Boxing Day.
“It became a tradition which I’m sure they will miss,” says Wiscombe, who will host Dumont as a visitor at her home while she is on her way back to Toronto.
At an age when many people would be beginning their third decade of a relaxing retirement, Dumont plans to continue helping out others in Toronto.
“For one thing, I’ll probably help serve at the soup kitchen,” said Dumont, who may also have the chance to help out with refugee families the Sister of St. Joseph sponsored to immigrate to Canada. “I know there are many many possibilities in Toronto and I intend to be involved.”
Leaving Thompson for good will be difficult, but Dumont says she knows the parish is in good hands.
“God promised in every community there would be all the gifts necessary for the upbuilding of the community,” she says. “Everybody has different gifts but together they form what is necessary to build up the community and so I’m confident that Thompson and the church will continue because of the people who are here.”