Leonard Gillis, legacy donor, believe in helping poor and remote Northern missionaries
Leonard Gillis, a Catholic Missions In Canada legacy donor, came to know about the urgent needs of the Canadian missions when he read an appeal from two missionaries from Nigeria serving in missions north of Winnipeg, Manitoba. The priests wrote about the widespread mould infestation in their mission church.
“It was Christmastime. I was moved by their story. I felt that it was not right to let those priests, who came halfway around the world to serve in our missions, to suffer from our cold and harsh winters. It turned out that the mould came from a leaking roof, but that was soon sorted out and with some help, the problem has been solved.”
The ability to put things in perspective and to act on them as effectively as he could has helped Leonard Gillis to succeed in business and to deal with the adversities and challenges early on. As a child, he was diagnosed as dyslexic, and in his teen years, had to change schools five times.
“I was considered the dumbest in class, but I persevered,” Gillis says. In retrospect, he says he put this challenge to his advantage by working harder than anyone. “Hard work and 'Somebody up there,' steered me in the right direction. I was able to make the right business decisions at the right time.”
At age seven, he had a newspaper route, and in his teens, delivered groceries to households in his neighbourhood. “I bought my first bike from my first earnings.”
It helped a lot, too, he says, that he met and married Mary, his wife of 52 years, who passed away in 2009. “She was my anchor. She took care of everything so I could concentrate on my business.”
The Gillises had married young and poor, in their twenties, and from day one resolved that they would make something of their life together. “I had met Mary at a dance—we were both dragged by our friends. I wasn't dancing; she wasn't dancing. Then I tripped over her feet. So I thought, if I keep on tripping all over, I might as well offer to dance with her. That was how it began. From that day forward, we were never apart.” They got married soon after.
Leonard Gillis was then working as a sewing machine salesman. When he bought a sewing machine for Mary, he was amazed at her adeptness with it. Without any sewing lessons, she sewed curtains and sofa covers for their small apartment, as well as her own dresses. Their frugal ways suited their lifestyle, he says. “Even when we could afford it, we remained meat-and-potatoes folks.”
When the young couple had saved enough, they decided to buy a house.
“Instead of handing over the keys to a house to Mary, I gave her keys to a triplex, or a row of three townhouses.” That first big purchase started the Gillises' construction business: from buying and reselling houses, Leonard Gillis ventured into the construction of residential, then commercial, and, later on, industrial complexes.
The success of their construction business spurred the Gillises to share the rewards of their hard work with philanthropic causes, from hospitals to rehabilitation centres. “I tried to do the best I could with my projects. I always put making people's lives better ahead of making any gains. This paid off a hundredfold,” says Leonard.
Just as projects in the missions caused him to pause and consider what he could do to help in poor and remote mission communities across the country, Leonard has also thought long and hard on Luke's passage (12:48) in the Bible: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”
“I was helped and guided through all these years. And I thank God for being there for me. Now I want to help others.”
Leonard Gillis has named Catholic Missions In Canada in his will.
Patria Rivera is Director Publications and Communications at Catholic Missions In Canada.