The legacy-giving sisters: Brenda and Lorna Cerri with Father Philip Kennedy at St.Philip Neri mass held on May 26, 2011
Brenda and Lorna Cerri were toddlers when their father, Bruno, died in an accident in County Down in Northern Ireland, as he was coming home from a business trip. Soon after, the sisters and three other siblings were taken under the care of their grandmother, Bridget Byrne, who stayed with them while their mother Anne worked.
“We had a good and happy childhood even if my grandma was a little strict,” Brenda recalls in a telephone interview from the sisters’ home in Toronto’s west end. “Grandma taught us how to say our prayers, to go to Mass and to observe the holy days.”
She also told us, ‘You have to be responsible for all you do and how you do it.’”
The young Brenda was once described by her grandmother as “the girl who couldn't keep still,” because, as Brenda admits, “I was always running about and always on the go. She had one word to describe me: a ‘harum-scarum’!”
Brenda wanted to go places. First, she worked as an au pair for a family in London and later went into a sales job. In 1953, when she turned 21, she was invited by an older sister to look for new job opportunities in Toronto. She started in sales work and then applied with the Bank of Commerce, as the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce or CIBC was then known. In the 1960s they recruited her to join the bank's team that would train tellers to use the new banking machines. “It meant I had to visit many of the bank's branches across the province. So, for a few days at a time, I could be somewhere travelling to a small town in Ontario.”
Their youngest sister, Lorna, who came to Toronto after their mother died, soon joined Brenda. It was Lorna who encouraged Brenda to focus her giving not only to her favourite charities but also to the Canadian missions.
“I give credit to our missionaries for taking up the Lord's cause when nobody was doing it. They have a lot of guts; some of them have even lost their lives over it. They deserve to be remembered for what they did,” says Brenda.
To support their causes early on, she and her younger sister lived as frugally and as simply as they could.
Brenda recalls: “We didn't have a lot of money to spare then, but we managed to give. We still had to pay our mortgage so we did without (the frills): no travelling (to foreign countries), no cinema, no theatre—for the past 30 years!”
She says their philosophy was, and remains to this day, “If we can't afford it, then we have to do without it.” She adds: “We can always hop on a bus and go somewhere!” Or visit friends, which the sisters often do, as often as they go for their long walks in the city.
“What keeps me going is I know that God will always be there for me, for us. I live by the principle that we will never find it easy to just walk away from God, to keep our lives separate from Him.”
PS: Patria Rivera is Director Publications and Communications at Catholic Missions In Canada.