Hospitality House Refugee Ministry (“HHRM”) had its humble beginnings in the late 1970s. Moved by the plight of Vietnamese “boat people”, many communities of Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions (a Roman Catholic Order also known as L’Institut de Notre Dame des Missions) joined Refugee Host Programs in their parishes to sponsor families in need. Deep and lasting friendships were developed. During this same time period, Sister Aileen Gleason, serving the Congregation in Rome, began to meet young Ethiopian “refugee” men on the streets of Rome. Moved by their young lives which were now ‘on hold’, Aileen sought and found sponsorships for many of them through her Canadian connections.
The Sisters of St. Edward’s in Winnipeg, in particular, had a deep interest in the need of refugees and in the early 1980s sponsored and took complete responsibility for three refugees and nominally helped with four others. Sister Katherine Boechler, who had served many years in India and Bangladesh, retired from teaching in 1984 and, in turn, befriended, tutored and assisted 12 other refugees. Beginning in 1986, a Filipino refugee was offered “sanctuary” in several of the convents of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions until he was granted landed immigrant status and eventually, Canadian citizenship.
At the Provincial Chapter of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions, held in Brandon in February, 1986, a ministry to refugees was strongly affirmed. Funds were to be made available and Sister Aileen Gleason was asked to coordinate the work with refugees and to develop a comprehensive refugee program. This commitment was further strengthened when, in 1990, the Congregational Chapter, held in Rome with elected delegates from some 18 countries, named ‘refugees’ as a top mission priority for the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions.
Sister Aileen Gleason, a strong advocate for refugees and supported by her faith, unfailing dedication and steady perseverance, gave shape and substance to the whole ministry. Her vision was that of offering another chance for life to these beautiful and gifted persons. When asked to help, her response was ‘yes’.
Beginning in 1991 when the number of sponsored refugees was reaching a thousand, Aileen began planning for a home to receive refugees. She was supported in this venture by Rev. Jim Wolf of the Anglican Diocese of Rupert’s Land. This became a reality in 1992 when Hospitality House, 60 Mortimer Place, was opened and its first refugee, Asha from Somalia, was received and welcomed. Hospitality House, one of Canada’s finest refugee-receiving homes, is owned, supplied and the ministry financially supported by St. John’s Anglican Cathedral.
HHRM’s prime mover and developer has certainly been Sister Aileen Gleason. She, in turn, has been supported by the Leadership Team and the Our Lady of the Missions (“RNDM”) Sisters of Canada. Over the years, Sister Aileen has initiated thousands of refugee sponsorships, most of whom she welcomed at the Airport and then companioned them as they settled into their new life in Canada.
In 2002, Sister Aileen Gleason retired as Refugee Coordinator and Sister Margaret Purdie of the RNDM Order, recently retired as General Secretary of the Order in Rome, accepted to serve as executive director of HHRM. In 2006, Sister Margaret retired again and returned to her homeland, New Zealand. Tom Denton, with years of refugee-serving experience, accepted to serve as Coordinator of HHRM and John and Fatuma Mukesa Salumu-Kasongo, with baby John Jr. (and now also baby James) became House Hosts for Hospitality House until replaced by Karin Gordon in 2010.
In the late 1990s, the Leadership of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions, established an advisory board for the Refugee Ministry. Over the years this Board has unfolded to become the Board of Directors when Hospitality House Refugee Ministry Inc. was incorporated as a non-profit organization.
While the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions have handed over full responsibility for the refugee ministry to the HHRM Board, with gratitude for their competence and dedication, an emotional bond to the ministry with refugees remains strong. One Sister serves on the Board and the Sisters continue to contribute financially to the ministry. They are grateful for the many other sources of funding which have been sought and found over the years.
Other financial support comes from a unique blend of faith communities, principally including Roman Catholic parishes and the Anglican Cathedral of St. John, but also including United Church of Canada and Presbyterian parishes. Important support also comes from private foundations and many individual donors.
HHRM, after a few years of initiating a smaller number of new sponsorships each year, has returned to its role as the largest individual private sponsor of refugees into Canada. In 2011 alone it sponsored 1,940 refugees.