By Romina Monaco
As the room erupts into loud applause, the audience stands and the eighty-nine year old petite, but formidable woman briskly makes her way toward the podium that awaits. Her piercing blue eyes, pirate smile, and magnetism captivate all those who have been invited to her court.
“The United Kingdom has Queen Elizabeth and we, the Italian Canadian community, have Jackie Rosati” proudly announces Mauro Paura, President of the Canadian Italian Business and Professional Association (C.I.B.P.A).
Considering the first woman descends from one of the most powerful dynasties in history and the other to a peasant family of humble Italian origins, the comparison of Gioconda “Jackie” Rosati to one of the longest-reigning European monarchs would once have been considered absurd. However, in this modern age true nobility is no longer perceived as a birthright but is recognized through one’s integrity and life of purpose. It is befitting that Jackie was recently awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
From the eight year-old girl’s arrival on Ellis Island in 1932, to an illustrious nursing career which catapulted into the outstanding charity work that distinguished her as one of our most philanthropic citizens, there is no question that Jackie's journey has been anything but extraordinary. Besides being one of the first female migrants to obtain a scholarship, she has traveled to the far corners of the world, danced in the arms of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau and Sammy Davis Jr., created innumerable artworks and designed her own gowns. A writer of poetry and an avid gardener, she is also a mother and grandmother.
“People ask me when I’m going to stop. My answer to that is, ‘I’m here only once and I want to do it all!’”, explains Jackie.
And she has indeed done it all. Jackie is the founder of the C.I.B.P.A. Ladies’ Auxiliary and over the last sixty years through this conduit, has supported the Marfan and Muscular Dystrophy Associations, Autism Society, Centennial Children’s Centre, Villa Colombo Home for Seniors, Friuli Long Term Care, the Thalassemia Foundation including foundations within the hospitals for Sick Children and Mount Sinai.
She has sat on the boards of the Canadian Cancer and Diabetic Societies, the Elizabeth Fry Society (an organization facilitating the reintegration of former female inmates into society), the Red Cross, Humber River Regional Hospital and the Allergy/Asthma Information Association. She was also a member of the Liberal Association of North York and if that isn't enough, today she is affiliated with the St. Michael’s Hospital Alumni.
“It was difficult to even get on these boards. It was a very Anglo-Saxon environment back then so as an immigrant I never made it to the executive level”, she says.
Later in her career as a nurse practitioner in the Heavy Industries sector, her initiative Proper and Safe Operation of Machinery and Time Lost to Absenteeism was addressed at Queen’s Park and later published in the Globe and Mail Newspaper. Jackie's condition relating to lactose intolerance led her and a colleague to experiment and formulate lactose-free milk in the early seventies. To add to this list of accolades she and late husband, Elio Rosati, assisted poor Italians immigrants during a period where Canada lacked social programs and assistance.
Her altruistic efforts have even extended beyond our border. With Elio by her side she visited over eighty countries, not only for recreation, but also to deliver much-needed aid. Now in the latter of her life she still retains an active role in the C.I.B.P.A., donating a bus and volunteering at Villa Colombo - the retirement home she helped establish with her husband in 1976.
Where does this moral consciousness and passion stem from? Jackie believes that all people can be compassionate, using their resources and talents to help others. Her calling was indirectly reinforced by her father.
“My father worked in the coal yards of Welland. He would come home at the end of the day, sit himself in a chair and call out ‘Nurse! I’m ready!’ I would hold his head, flip over his eyelids and take the coal out from his eyes.” Jackie recalls.
In 1942 Jackie was already a girl ahead of her time. Although her traditional parents would have preferred she safely marry - the curious, intelligent and adventurous eighteen year-old had other plans. Part-time employment in a rope factory had funded her high school education and then, on a full scholarship, she courageously left her home along the Welland Canal and traveled to Toronto solo where she trained and interned as a nurse at St. Michael’s Hospital.
Jackie would never return to Welland again. Her career at the hospital, including the nurse’s residence where she made her home, marked a profound intellectual and spiritual metamorphosis that would forever change her.
During her years employed at St. Micheal's Hospital as an operating room nurse assisting plastic surgeons, she recalls the burn victims and the disfigured . She fondly remembers the children under her care while doing a postgraduate in pediatrics at the Hospital for Sick Children. Some stand out more than others.
“A little girl had undergone surgery where a portion of her brain had been removed due to a malignant tumour", remembers Jackie.
In a vegetated state and not eating, she watched the parents leave every day in tears. "They had given up on her- everybody had. Then one day I saw her eyes move. She was staring at my red rosary hanging from my pocket. I put it in her hand and while she held it I began to feed her….and she ate!” exclaims Jackie.
“Not long after I saw her walking out of that hospital holding her parents’ hands” she said.
In the summer of 1949 Jackie’s journey led her down another momentous path.
“Elio was a lot older than me, but I was very mature for my age. I had seen a lot in my profession and had to make serious decisions that could change peoples’ lives” she explains.
Elio Rosati, a second generation Italian Canadian from Toronto, had been a navigator for the Royal Canadian Air Force. After WWII he stayed on in the South Pacific as an intelligence officer searching for the graves of fallen comrades. Upon his return to Toronto he worked alongside friend, Sam Sorbara at an office equipment company. Elio's mother, who had been a patient under Jackie’s care, was mortified to hear that the young woman was living alone and had no family in the area. The nurse was invited to dinner, met the dashing bachelor and in less than a year they were married.
An educated idealist who served his country, Elio had little tolerance for the discrimination he and his colleagues faced in their daily lives.
“Italians were looked upon badly back then. We were called wops and degos. My husband couldn’t stand it. One day he overheard the neighbours tell visitors that they had ‘immigrants’ living next door. Meanwhile Elio had been born in Canada and they hadn't!” she chuckles.
In efforts to empower fellow Italians, Elio joined the newly established C.I.B.P.A. Toronto Chapter. Admiring his wife’s strength, energy and generous spirit he encouraged her to organize a women’s group under the C.I.B.P.A. umbrella. Jackie founded the Ladies’ Auxiliary a year later.
“He was a quiet, strong intellect who encouraged my independence. There weren’t a lot of men like him”, says Jackie fondly.
The Auxiliary’s mandate was simple. With funds raised by regular “spaghetti dinners” the members were able to help Italian immigrant families by providing food, clothing, diapers, bedding as well as assisting with medical appointments. Now entering the third and fourth generation, the need for such assistance is no longer necessary. Today funds are raised for the community at large, mostly medical institutions.
Over the last six decades the C.I.B.P.A. and its Ladies’ Auxiliary have become the chosen voice of the Italian community. Through its support it has given rise to some of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs, politicians and professionals. Jackie, a role model of generosity and humanitarianism, will forever be known as its matriarch and a trailblazing woman well ahead of her time.