A life of quiet strength
After a hard 99-year life, a Fort Smith woman is fondly remembered

Northern News Services

Fort Smith ( May 15/00) - Rosalie Dempsey was a quiet woman who never had anything negative to say about the people she knew or the hardships she faced in her life.

She was strong and fiercely independent. Those who knew her best say that attribute could be recognized clearly in the last years of her 99-year life.

"She had a hard life," say both Sister Agnes Sutherland, a long-time friend, and Dempsey's daughter Nora Freund.

Dempsey was born Rosalie Mercredi in 1901 in Fort Chipewyan, Alta. When her father died, she went to live with her uncle Alexander and Aunt Madeline Mercredi in Fort Vermilion. At that time she was eight-years-old.

Sister Sutherland said Rosalie's mother was very poor and somewhat of a transient.

She stayed with her uncle and in the convent in Fort Vermilion, Alta. until she was 18 years old. From there, she moved back to Fort Chipewyan and stayed in the convent there.

"They wanted her to become a nun," explained Freund. "She said sometimes she was sorry she didn't but she didn't really want to at the time."

It was not an easy choice for Rosalie, but her faith in God and her religious convictions were a firm basis throughout her long life.

"She prayed a lot and always spoke very highly of the sisters in the convents where she stayed before marrying," the sister said.

Sutherland said a lot of young women who had no where else to go stayed in the convents and when Dempsey left the one in Fort Vermilion, she wanted to go back almost immediately. That's why she went back to Fort Chipewyan and stayed with the sisters there.

But instead of joining the nunnery, she met and married Michael Joseph Dempsey in Fort Chipewyan in 1923. They lived in the area and ran a trapline together until Rosalie's husband got a job as a Wood Buffalo National Park warden. Michael's job took the couple from Fort Fitzgerald, Alta., to Hay River and finally to Fort Smith.

Rosalie was left alone a lot of that time, raising their 10 children.

"She was mother, doctor and everything," said daughter Nora Freund. "She was a hard worker and when my dad passed away, she still had 10 children to look after."

Freund says she remembers her mother telling her about the time she had only $5 in her pocket. The youngest child had a toothache and when Dempsey took him to the dentist that's what it cost to have it extracted.

"She said she had to get rid of her last $5," Freund said.

When she was widowed and left with the 10 children in 1951, Rosalie found work with the Sisters of St. Ann's Hospital. There, she became renowned for her cooking and fresh baked bread.

"I met her in 1958 when I came to Fort Smith to teach," Sutherland recalled. "There was a big pile of nice fresh bread every day in the cafeteria that also belonged to the church staff and missionaries. I was curious and wanted to know who cooked all the nice fresh bread so I wanted to meet Rosalie."

In the mid-80s Rosalie moved into a seniors' home and after breaking her hip about five years ago moved into the Northern Lights Special Care Home in Fort Smith.

"It was sad for her," said Freund. "Just last year she still talked about moving and having her own home."

She was a picture of quiet strength. Rosalie wasn't one to do a lot of mixing, said Sutherland, and she never spoke ill about anyone but she was a loyal, enduring and committed woman. Sutherland also describes her as a very smart, intellectual person who was very well-read.

But most of all, "Rosalie never raised her voice to express her hurtful feelings, her disappointments or her anger if she ever did feel angry towards anyone," she said. "When she did feel contradicted or had a load of worries to carry night and day, she also knew how to control those feelings and depended on God's help to overcome whatever hurt her so deeply."