A Visionary Leader

Sister Irene Forrester is being remembered as a compassionate and visionary leader who inspired others to work for the dignity of all humanity.

A Sister of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul, Irene Mary Forrester died on February 16, 2001, after a difficult battle with cancer. She was in her 45th year of religious life.

Sr. Irene spent a decade in congregational leadership, serving as general superior from 1989 to 1994. Her approach to leadership was both inspired and inspiring, notes Sister Sheila Brady, a close friend who worked on many major projects with Sr. Irene.

“She was a very strong woman, a woman of integrity and honesty,” recalls Sister Sheila. “Irene was also very affirming of others. She believed in their potential.”

It was under her leadership in 1989 that the congregation adopted its official corporate mission statement with its commitment to “empower others, especially the poor and oppressed, to achieve a quality of life in keeping with their human dignity.” It was a challenge that Sister Irene embraced fully, and she spent the next five years implementing it not only as a key tenet of the congregation’s life, but as her personal approach to life.

It was that challenge that also led Sister Irene to launch the congregation’s Office of Justice and Peace, a ministry dedicated to addressing the root causes of poverty and social inequity. “She saw the need for that very much,” noted Sister Sheila. “She worked hard to promote relationships of equality and mutuality, and to respond to the needs of the times.”

During Sister Irene’s tenure in leadership, the congregation made extensive renovations to the chapel at Providence Motherhouse in Kingston, Ont. With its distinctly and prominently feminine style, the modernized chapel was an innovative departure for Kingston-area spaces of worship. Featured in articles in several liturgical journals, it is noted for its tranquil and welcoming environment. Sr. Irene was also a strong supporter of women’s studies within the field of theology.

Sister Irene also brought her compassionate concern to her lengthy involvement in Ontario health care. From 1977 to 1987, while CEO of St. Vincent de Paul Hospital in Brockville, Ont., she was responsible for launching palliative care services there. It was partly that innovative concern for the dying that led in 1992 to her receiving the Commemorative Medal for the 125th anniversary of Confederation from the federal government in recognition of her significant contribution to her country and her community.

Sister Irene played a further role in the development of the province’s health care, both as a member of the provincial and national boards of the Catholic Health Association, and through her involvement with Kingston’s Providence Manor home for the aged and St. Mary’s of the Lake Hospital, serving as acting CEO at the latter from 1976-77.

“Sister Irene was a giant,” recalls Bud Burkom, a past member of the governing board of the Providence Continuing Care Centre, which now oversees the operation of all three health care facilities with which Sr. Irene was involved.

Burkom noted that Sister Irene caringly shepherded through tough changes the health care institutions faced in the early 1990s. “It was a very emotional and difficult period,” said Burkom. “Sister Irene was capable of seeing what needed to be done and making the hard decisions, but she always acted with great compassion.”

Born in Montreal on Nov. 8, 1933, Irene heard the call to religious life at the age of 22. For the next 45 years she dedicated herself to the charism of the Sisters of Providence, one of compassionate caring for the poor.

“I have been blessed in so many ways,” Sr. Irene recalled in the mid-1990s. “My life has been enriched through relationships, satisfying ministry, spiritual growth, visiting our missions, and finding hope in the hearts of very poor people.”

Sister Irene is survived by her sister Diane and husband John LeGros of Kingston, as well as her niece Elizabeth Brown and family friend Edwige Miller, also of Kingston. She was predeceased by her parents, Harvey and Lillian (Coleman).