Northern colleagues of Agnes Sutherland are remembering her life and service in the North as the longtime Grey Nun in Fort Smith died on Aug. 10, at the age of 92. Sutherland, a Metis woman born in Fort Chipewyan in 1926, joined the Grey Nuns in 1943 and spent more than 70 years of her life in the religious order, particularly based in Fort Smith and Fort McMurray with the Mackenzie-Fort Smith Diocese.
She was remembered last week for being the driving force behind the first shelter for abused women and children, later named the Sutherland House, in Fort Smith.
“Agnes worked in Fort Smith for a long time and used to take women in to the old hospital and worked to start up the first shelter from that,” said YWCA executive director Lyda Fuller, whose organization now runs the eight-bed shelter facility.
She said Sutherland should be seen as a critical figure in a movement that was taking place across the country during the late seventies and early eighties where organizations were being put together for the first time to shelter women fleeing violence.
“That is really how most got their start around that time and I think because Agnes was so well connected to the community and had a position of influence, many would come and seek her help.”
Today, Sutherland House is one of five women’s shelters in the NWT and one of two run by the YWCA – an important service akin to an emergency room, Fuller said.
She was also known as a religious education specialist and her strong devotion to the poor and downtrodden.
Gilles Paquin, business manager for planned giving and advancement with the diocese said he first met her while living in Fort Smith during the mid-eighties. He remembers her devotion and high ethical standards for those less well-off.
“She was very significant and she was famous for plowing through obstacles when she believed the cause was right,” he said.
“When she was in Fort Smith and the snow plow would go around, it would sometimes block access at the houses of the elderly. She would put her boots and coat on and go down the town hall and ordered the municipality to shovel it clear. Not demanded, ordered. Nobody would stand in her way when she was in her warrior mode.”
Jim Lynn, chancery of the diocese also came to the North around the same time and said he had very warm memories of her.
“I found her to be a beautiful lady,” he said. “She had a great love of people and for the down-out and downtrodden people who had difficulty in their life.
“One of the most important was the house for the abused or battered women and she worked very hard for those things. She received a number of honorary awards over the years and even authored a number of books.”
Lynn Napier-Buckley, Mayor of Fort Smith said the Sutherland House is a keystone of her community and for that reason, she will be missed.
“She was a very valuable member of our community and really contributed immensely,” said Napier-Buckley.
Sutherland’s final place of residence was the Youville Home in St. Albert, Alta.