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"I believe my life and many of my life opportunities were privileges and gifts. All of this was gift"
Sister Rosaleen Zdunich is a pioneer in laying the ground work for strong and sensitive ecumenical and interfaith dialogue among Edmonton's religious communities. Her efforts to build bridges between people of all faiths have fostered greater compassion and understanding in Alberta and have also served as a model for others to follow.
Rosaleen Mary Zdunich was born in Hanley, Saskatchewan and grew up on the family farm along with her siblings. She was inspired by the example of compassion and a deep faith in God that she witnessed in her parents, Maria and Mike, who opened their hearts and home to everyone and were role models of how to be accepting of, and generous toward, all traditions and cultures. Rosaleen also found early inspiration in the religiously diverse nature of her hometown and rural school. From a young age, she witnessed a deep respect among the various Christian denominations, whether it was displayed by not serving meat at school socials on Fridays out of respect for Catholic residents or the general sense of acceptance that was modelled by many in the community.
At the age of 15, Rosaleen's experiences broadened with a move to complete her secondary education at a convent school in nearby Saskatoon. By the time she completed Grade 12, Rosaleen had found her calling. She underwent the requisite training to become a nun and then continued her studies at a teachers’ college in Saskatoon.
For several years, Sister Rosaleen taught first grade in Saskatoon and discovered that the classroom was a natural fit. In time, she transferred to Moose Jaw to teach junior high. Her strong performance soon singled her out and she was offered new duties as school principal. All the while, Sister Rosaleen attended night and summer school which led to a Bachelor of Education degree from the University of Saskatchewan in 1968. She then transferred to Edmonton where she continued teaching junior high students.
Two years later, Rosaleen had the opportunity to go to New York and study at Fordham University. She graduated with a Master of Science degree in Educational Counselling and returned to Edmonton, this time as junior high school counsellor/psychologist. She enjoyed serving as a sounding board for young students. In fact, she was so effective in her work that decades later she continues to hear from students who took time to stay in touch with the teacher and counsellor that had made such a positive impact on their lives.
In 1975, Sister Rosaleen reached a defining moment that would move her in a new direction. She had the opportunity to take Judaic and Biblical Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel. This experience had a profound influence on Rosaleen, deepening her spiritual awareness and setting her on a path that would both reshape her life and touch the spiritual understanding of countless others. When she returned to Edmonton, Sister Rosaleen began exploring ecumenism and multifaith understanding. This work began modestly with organized visits to local synagogues for both students and adults. She also planned ecumenical events to foster dialogue and exchange among the Christian denominations.
In 1980, Rosaleen became a volunteer member of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese’s Commission for Ecumenism and by 1983 she had been named the Chair. One of her many early endeavours in this role included coordinating a 1986 interfaith prayer service/dialogue at an Edmonton synagogue. The highly successful event was one of the first of its kind in Edmonton and coincided with a similar event held in Rome by Pope John Paul II.
With a passionate commitment, Rosaleen continued to devote every free moment to the cause of strengthening ecumenical relations between people of Christian denominations and creating multifaith awareness and acceptance. In 1990, she moved from her work in schools to devote her complete attention to ecumenical and interfaith ministry. Sister Rosaleen served as a member of the team that planned Edmonton’s first Christian Unity Week Ecumenical prayer service, an event that has flourished and grown every year since, and she also initiated the First Institute in Ecumenism. As she developed her ministry a new concept began taking root, an approach that would move beyond the reality of a multifaith city where people of various religions lived side by side, but still separate, to a community that encouraged active dialogue and meaningful interaction among all faiths.
In 1993, Rosaleen, with a multifaith committee formed the Edmonton Interfaith Network which planned an interfaith prayer service for the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a tradition that has been continued. In 1995, Rosaleen moved from her role with the Archdiocese and became the founding coordinator of the Edmonton Interfaith Centre for Education and Action, which evolved from the Interfaith Network. Sister Rosaleen’s work, as the Centre’s founding coordinator, blossomed into a multifaceted movement to develop mutual understanding and warm relationships among Edmonton’s faiths and cultures. Through the Centre, she also worked with the City of Edmonton Chaplain to introduce a new tradition of various different faiths leading the opening prayer at City Council meetings.
Her ministry continued to grow over the years to include interfaith dialogues, prayer services, workshops and special events touching virtually every faith practiced in the city. These have enriched the experiences and heightened the understanding of countless community members from across the city. This includes the historic interfaith event that was held to mark Edmonton’s centennial, a special day that began with a First Nation’s prayer before honouring 13 other faiths.
Rosaleen’s success in laying the groundwork for sensitive and appropriate ecumenical and interfaith relations has also made Edmonton an inspiration for other jurisdictions. She has served as the face of ecumenism and interfaith in Edmonton and is known throughout Alberta and Canada as a trusted voice on multifaith issues. With a keen sensitivity towards all peoples, Rosaleen is always aware of proper protocol, is a font of creative and practical ideas and brings strong leadership and outstanding organizational skills to her duties.
Sister Rosaleen serves as a frequent presenter at public events, shares her expertise as a frequent contributor to newspapers and periodicals and is often sought out as a consultant on how to respect various religious protocols. She has shared Edmonton's interfaith experience as a delegate to the Parliament of World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa and Barcelona, Spain, as well as to the North American Interfaith Network in Vancouver.
Reflecting her long-held belief that education is the key to promoting interfaith understanding and harmony, Sister Rosaleen served in 2005 as manager of an interfaith project for the Alberta Teachers’ Association Safe and Caring Schools. She helped teachers create lesson plans that teach students respect for all faiths. She is one of the authors of a teachers’ resource booklet Safe and Caring Schools for Students of all Faiths: A Guide for Teachers.
In 2009, Rosaleen became a member of the Board of Directors of the Phoenix Multifaith Society for Harmony. The following year she contributed several stories to Our Stories of Abrahamic Interfaith Harmony and Cooperation in and around Edmonton, Alberta produced by Phoenix.
Sister Rosaleen has received numerous recognitions for her service over the years. These include the City of Edmonton Salute to Excellence Award, the Alberta Centennial Medal, the Ecumenical Leadership Award from the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism in Montreal, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Association Interfaith Symposium Award, the Interfaith Centre Appreciation Award, the Roman Catholic Ecumenical and Interfaith Office Appreciation Award and the Marilyn McClung Memorial Award for Ecumenism and a Premier’s Award of Excellence for her work as a member of the advisory board for the Jesus through the Centuries display at the Provincial Museum of Alberta.
When asked to share the secret of building a caring multifaith community, Sister Rosaleen offers advice that is both succinct and insightful. She says, “communities don’t just happen…you have to build them. You have to work together, share goals and ideas and reach out to those who need assistance.” Those who know and admire her would add that you also need a strong, committed and pioneering leader like Sister Rosaleen Zdunich to see where the possibilities lie and to help guide the community toward a stronger future.