Practising Social Activism


As a Sister of Mercy, Kathrine Bellamy (Sr. Kathrine) attributed her compassion to God and said that her vocation compelled her to convey to others "the love and compassion that God has for each one of us".

Witness & researcher: Poverty at home

In her role as Pastoral Assistant at the Basilica in St. John's, Sr. Kathrine became aware of the need for fundamental supports such as food, clothing, and household items. Embarking on a program of home visits, she saw firsthand the desperation and poverty in which many people existed, and began to search for ways to improve things. Initiating a program of bulk food buying stretched the church's resources and reached more people with higher quality nourishment. In 1980, she established the Basilica Family Care Centre in the basement of a former orphanage along with parish women who generously offered volunteer assistance to establish a food and clothing centre.

Housing conditions

From the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, Sr. Kathrine visited people in homes all over St. John's and saw conditions that both shocked and inspired her to become an interventionist, using her networks to get immediate action for dire situations. In one case, she recalled a woman bundled up in blankets inside a house where the frost on the inside wall formed a rime several inches thick. She called on her friend at City Hall, Mayor Shannie Duff, and the landlord was reported; the City relocated the woman and her family because of the direct interest the Mayor took that resulted in prompt action.

On another occasion, while visiting a sick woman, Sr. Kathrine took stock of the single room where she lived in terror, bolting herself in because of male tenants who were rowdy drinkers with whom she had to share a kitchen and bathroom with the door kicked in. This, too, prompted a visit to City Hall, and once more initiated a swift response. But these were case-by-case solutions, and now she wanted something more systemic to address the shelter problem in the city.

Sr. Kathrine and her good friend Sister Marie Ryan enlisted Sister Emma Rooney to help form a group called Voices for Justice in Housing, which began a serious lobbying of City Hall and provincial government. On reflection, Sr. Kathrine felt that the success of this effort was in raising awareness at government levels regarding the condition of boarding and rooming houses in the city. At the time, a City by-law mandated inspection of such shelters only if more than four people were living there, and landlords found loopholes in the Act.

Voices for Justice in Housing dealt with the big legal issues. Sr. Kathrine's role was to identify places she saw on her home visits, and then another committee member would take it from there. The committee looked after the political activism and lobbying and set up meetings with politicians in different political parties – something they were very good at doing.

Sr. Kathrine defined her role as "just a voice for [people living in poverty]… just the informant". Although she could act on a one-by-one basis to make a deplorable situation known to the right authorities, and do a limited amount of follow up, it was not feasible for her to do much more on her own. Insisting that "any bit of humanity inside a person would respond", she used her powers of observation, compassion, and courage to bring things to light.

Emmaus House Food Bank

Sr. Kathrine helped to found the Emmaus House Food Bank, acting as Coordinator for some time. An interdenominational project that was marked by tension at the beginning, ultimately she reported that Anglicans worked alongside Roman Catholics harmoniously to ensure that food needs were being met – a project that was "still working twelve years later and doing wonderful work". Once good policies and procedures had been put in place, the Emmaus House food bank could network with other food banks and volunteers from each church group could run it.

The Gathering Place: a dream materializes

Sr. Kathrine told of the dream she had that was based on her visiting knowledge of how people lived in one room and "ate beans and jelly for dinner, jelly and beans for supper". She saw their loneliness. She saw how people came to the Basilica to wash in the mornings, and keep warm when they were turned out in harsh weather. She saw how barren and idle their lives were, and how many turned to drink for relief. She determined "there had to be something better than that for them".

A friend to "Mike", one of the more educated residents, she would bring him magazines such as Time and Newsweek to read. Sr. Kathrine shared her dream of a gathering place with him – a comfortable, clean, attractive centre where people could socialize, play games, read, listen to music, or just come and be quiet and warm. She enlisted Mike, who was enthusiastic about the prospect, to canvass the idea with his friends – and the word came back was that everyone wanted such a place.

So with the community interest firmly in hand, Sr. Kathrine and Mike met with others and learned that various churches in Roman Catholic and Anglican parishes were interested. Without resources, Sr. Kathrine approached the leadership of the Sisters of Mercy to ask for space and discovered that the Presentation and Mercy Congregations had been collaborating to address the problem of homelessness in the city. They decided to implement Sr. Kathrine's idea and the Sisters of Mercy offered the former Mercy School. And so The Gathering Place was born, and still thrives a dozen years later.

Sr. Kathrine was on the planning committee for the founding and, with the assistance of the Community Services Council for insight, instigated training for volunteers. Once the facility was off the ground, she moved on, reflecting, "This was the idea, that once something was going fine and I wasn't needed, I'd find something else".

Raising awareness: a significant publication

When Sr. Kathrine was asked to write the extensive history of the Sisters of Mercy in Newfoundland, she had to resign from all other committees and devote herself to research and the writing of the book. At this point she was in her seventies, and "dragging big boxes of food and other materials all over the place was getting too much".