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Honouring a social work pioneer


By Ernest Macdonald


Presently on Prince Edward Island there are approximately 70 professional social workers tending to the emotional and social problems that inflict so many families. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, the lack of financial and emotional support for families created enormous problems so that in 1931 the Charlottetown Hospital provided office space for a nurse and a Sister of St Martha, who then began visiting families who were suffering from hunger and disease.

This early beginning culminated in the training of two Sisters of St. Martha at the Maritime School of Social Work. In 1945, Prince Edward Island’s first professional social workers, Sister Jeanette MacDonald (Sister John of the Cross in religion) and Sister Kathleen Kilbride (Sister Mary Eugene) began their practice in what was known then as the Catholic Welfare Bureau. This auspicious beginning was marred by the sudden death of Sister MacDonald in 1951, which left the whole burden of professional social work on the shoulders of Sister Kathleen Kilbride.

A few months ago, on August 26, 2010, Sister Kathleen Kilbride passed away. She leaves behind her a fascinating story of a pioneering vision in the social work field which extended from this Island to the eastern United States and beyond. Very few of the younger social workers would have heard of the contributions made to the field of social work by this remarkable woman. Perhaps one of the most important initiatives was an adoption program of P.E.I. infants to families in New Jersey. She recognized that infants who needed to grow up in loving families would otherwise be left to grow up in orphanages here on Prince Edward Island. This was intolerable to her and she began an adoption program to place P.E. I. infants in homes in the eastern U.S. So great was her contribution that citizens in New Jersey who knew of her work set up in 1966 a national and international adoption agency and named it the “Sister Mary Eugene Foundation”. Sister Kathleen was invited to become the first executive director.

She established the Welfare Bureau in Charlottetown and later, a similar agency in Summerside. She served in New Jersey, in Caribou, Maine, and with Social Services in Fredericton, N.B. Later, she worked in West Prince, P.E.I., then went back to Fredericton and finally to Massachusetts before she retired in 1997. In all of these assignments, Sister Kathleen provided inspired leadership to the people of each community. The changes in social services continued long after she had moved on to other challenges. There were many honours awarded to her, among them, The Queen Elizabeth Medal for outstanding performance in social welfare. Perhaps the most unusual honour was an invitation in 1990 by the ‘People to People Citizen Ambassador Program’ to participate in a delegation to the People’s Republic of China to discuss health issues.

Sister Kathleen Kilbride was wholly supported by her congregation, the Sisters of St Martha, who enabled her to play a substantial role in the development of social services. She was a visionary in social work, and a quiet diplomat who brought various communities forward with her to serve better the disadvantaged in every area assigned to her.

Ernest Macdonald is a retired social worker living in Charlottetown. He worked in social agencies in Detroit, London, Ont , Sydney, N.S. and Montreal where he faced the same problems of child adoptions as Sister Kilbride.

2010 Oct 28