Rita Gillies and Fr. Emile April recognized with college’s distinguished alumni award

St. Thomas More College's 2021 distinguished alumni award winners: Rita Gilles and Fr. Emile April. (Photos by Paul Sinkewicz, courtesy of St Thomas More College)

Courtesy of St. Thomas More College 

St. Thomas More (STM) College, the federated Catholic College at the University of Saskatchewan, recently awarded its 2021 Distinguished Alumni Awards to Rita Gillies and Fr. Emile April.

The STM Distinguished Alumni Award is awarded annually each November to each a female and a male graduate of St. Thomas More College whose lifetime accomplishments and achievements have been outstanding, who have made a significant contribution to their community, and who have continued to celebrate their relationship with St. Thomas More College since their graduation.

Rita Gillies

Born in Saskatoon, STM alumna Rita Gillies is blessed with a happy disposition, a love of learning, and an adventurous spirit, according to the award report on the STM website.

With a French-Catholic mother and a Scot-Irish non-practising Protestant father, both French and religion were downplayed as she was growing up. Nevertheless, at age 10, Rita was sent to school in Prud’homme to learn French. “The problem there was that everyone wanted to speak English. Her resultant vocabulary came from prayers and reprimands.”

As to religion, the air was saturated with a religious atmosphere. Sports and fair play were like a quasi-religion for her father, a natural-born athlete. With him as their speed skating coach, Rita and her brother were champions in their elementary years.

School was always a joy for Rita. Early schooling was with only other girls, and with nuns as teachers. Her horizons broadened when she came to co-ed St. Thomas More College, with priests as professors. On the University of Saskatchewan campus she earned a BA, a BEd, and an MTS (Master of Theological Studies) through the Lutheran Seminary, due to its proximity.

Her path to STM was due to good fortune. “A $100 STM bursary saved me from Teachers College, favoured by my cautious Dad, and aided my dream of the glamorous life at university,” Gillies said.

“When I was in high school my family moved from Saskatoon to North Battleford. So, with a return to Saskatoon, I was on my own to live life on my own terms. STM truly became my ‘home away from home’ — daily Mass with free toast, jam and coffee, endless free coffee all day, Ulcers (co-op lunch), library, ping-pong, camaraderie, — all this and more till evening curfew. With graduation in 1955 I was hired as a social worker thanks to the background in liberal arts that STM provided. I went out to the wide world with anticipation, confidence, joy and gratitude to STM.”

Gillies became a social worker for Weyburn and District, where she learned to drive, experiencing rural Saskatchewan’s four seasons, and hitting the ditch in snow and mud. Later she became a nurse through Kelsey Campus (now Saskatchewan Polytechnic).

However, like the Hound of Heaven, thoughts of religious life became overpowering. She gave in and became Sister Marie Camilla of Sion.

From 1960-1965 she taught French and Religion at Sion Academy and, in 1965, thanks to her French, was sent for a three-year assignment to the Sion Convent, Ecce Homo, in the Old City of Jerusalem.

At that time Jerusalem was a divided city: West under Israel and East under Jordan.

The Old City was located in the Arab world. Two years later, after months of tension, the 1967 “Six-Day War” broke out. Israel won, frontiers changed, and all Jerusalem came under Israeli control. “The ramifications are momentous,” she said.

In 1968, Gillies was sent to Montreal to help Sion’s efforts to found a Catholic Centre for Jewish Studies. While there, she studied Library Science at McGill University, left the Sisters of Sion congregation, and returned to Jerusalem as a librarian in the Ecumenical Institute for Advanced Theological Studies.

She studied Hebrew and began studies in the Guide School. One month into the course, the 1973 Yom Kippur War broke out. Some classmates were called up to serve in the military and remained on front lines for the rest of the year.

Gillies says the years of guiding tourists that followed were pure joy. However, in 1985 she returned to Saskatoon to provide company to her widowed mother. Fr. Bernard de Margerie hired her at the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism to give life to the Vatican Document ‘Nostra Aetate” for interfaith relations.

She helped found Multi-Faith Saskatoon, and became a guide for schools to visit the multi-faith world of Saskatoon. Travel became a passion: her backpacking adventures became PowerPoint presentations at public libraries.

Today Gillies is involved with refugees and immigrants. One of the newcomers had been a security guard in Baghdad, Iraq. To help him get licensed here, she took the course alongside him. The result: she also works as a security guard to this day.

Fr. Emile April

Fr. Emile April was born the third of four children to the April family of Peesane — a hamlet on the road from Tisdale to Hudson Bay — in northwest central Saskatchewan.

He moved with his family to Zenon Park, where he lived for nine years, and then to Saskatoon, where he attended St. Paul High School. Following Grade 12, he enrolled in St. Pius X Seminary and in 1964, he became an alumnus of St. Thomas More College, graduating from the University of Saskatchewan with a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy.

“During the years at STM, I lived at St. Pius X Seminary, where, by rule, the seminarians were to have a very limited social connection with STM. So, my connection was during class time,” April said. “We seminarians had some very good teachers and counsellors in the Basilian priests — mostly for philosophy but also political science and sociology. We also made lifelong friends with some STM students. Both the priests and the students made us feel very welcome and part of the Catholic presence on campus.”

Following graduate study in theology in Ottawa, April was ordained a priest for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon.

Between 1967 and 1972, he served in parishes in Saskatoon and Vonda and taught at Holy Cross High School in Saskatoon.

In 1973, April left Saskatchewan for Rio de Janeiro to learn Portuguese for his work in the mission of União dos Palmares in Brazil, where he was to spend the next 26 years serving the one city, five towns and 50 rural communities in the diocesan mission.

April worked in the formation of Christian communities, evangelization, and baptism preparation, as well as part of a team to help small farmers.

In 1989, massive floods swept through rural Brazil, causing destruction in 112 cities, leaving more than 300,000 homeless, and damaging or destroying nearly 7,000 homes. In addition to his pastoral duties, Fr. April spent most of the following three years as part of a team building houses for families who had lost theirs.

In 2001, April returned to Saskatoon to work as a parish priest in urban and rural parishes for the next 20 years, retiring in August 2017 at age 75. Since then, he has continued to assist in the diocese, including another term as pastor of the Trinité parishes at Prud’homme, St. Denis and Vonda.

“Thinking of Christ’s service to the people of God and the application of the STM ideals for the good of humanity, Fr. April is truly a distinguished alumnus of STM,” states the award summary on the STM website.