Courtesy of Skawennati
After a lifetime of service to her family and community, Brenda Dearhouse Fragnito passed away on May 11, 2022, at the age of 75.
She leaves behind five children and her beloved husband, as well as dozens of Kahnawa’kehró:non who have benefited from the community’s Cancer Support Group, Dearhouse’s legacy.
“Brenda was one of the founding members among Josie McGregor, the late Rita McComber and others,” said Candida Rice, a nurse at Kateri Memorial Hospital Center (KMHC).
She first met Dearhouse in 1989 when she volunteered with the newly formed group.
“It didn’t take me long to come see the strength, determination and resilience of this soft-spoken woman who has dedicated her life to supporting others with cancer.”
Rice wasn’t the only one struck by Dearhouse’s determination and good heart — not a long shot.
“Brenda, to me, is joy. To me, she was just a shining light. An unwavering light in a dark time for people,” Kateri Delisle said.
Delisle joined the band in 1997 after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She was looking for information, advice and support, and she found all three at these meetings.
“I always used to describe him as extremely welcoming in what was probably the most difficult times in life. There was a real warmth and comfort that I got out of it,” she said. “I really felt taken care of. And Brenda was a big part of that.
“It makes me very emotional just to talk about the kind of person she was. It makes me think how lucky I was to meet her in my life.
Delisle said Dearhouse was exceptionally good at finding the moments of levity in serious group conversation and had a wealth of knowledge about life through cancer to share with the band members.
“She just knew where to put the humor to make people feel comfortable,” Delisle said. “She had been through a lot and she was willing to share it all with anyone who wanted information.”
It’s easy in 2022 to forget what an important idea it was to start a cancer support group, especially for Onkwehón:we. The Kahnawake group is considered the first of its kind for an Aboriginal community.
“You have to remember that in the 90s people didn’t talk about their cancer stories very much. It was not something that was talked about,” said Lidia DeSimone, a nurse who has worked on cancer research in the community.
She said she admired Dearhouse’s drive, openness and perseverance, which she attributed to the group’s success.
“She knew people weren’t just going to say openly, ‘well, I’m going to go talk about it.’ So that’s the jewel that I have in my heart from Brenda,” she said.
DeSimone became good friends with Dearhouse, a friendship that was aided by the fact that DeSimone is Italian, and Dearhouse married an Italian, Luigi “Louie” Fragnito.
Fragnito is also recognized as an important part of the band’s success.
“Her husband was a hell of a supporter,” said Eugène Montour, a member of the group for six years. “She didn’t drive, but every time we had a meeting, he drove her to the meeting.
“He would sit in his car as long as the meetings lasted, and sometimes our meetings lasted over two hours.”
“It would be very remiss of me not to mention that Brenda told me early on that she couldn’t have been so involved in the band without her husband,” Rice said. “It didn’t take long to see how much Louie loved and supported his wife.”
“They were loyal to each other. They did everything together,” Dearhouse’s daughter Skawennati said. “A lot of people said he was in the cancer support group because he drove Brenda and that he was waiting for her.”
Skawennati remembers her mother as a kind and caring woman who for many years brought her to meetings with the Quebec Native Women’s Association that ultimately led to the creation of Bill C- 31, which restored Indian status to Aboriginal women who had married non-status men. She also worked closely with Mary Two-Axe Earley.
“She was an amazing mum. She was one of those mums, she had five kids and we each thought we were her favourites,” she recalled.
“Once when I was young I said, ‘Mom, we’d be rich if we didn’t have five kids.’ And she immediately said, ‘we are rich because we have five children.’ »
Dearhouse has been through two pandemics, Skawennati said: COVID-19 and polio, which she contracted as a baby. As a result, she had limited use of her left arm and moved with some difficulty. She also lost her mother at a young age and lived in Indian day school.
“So much sadness, and yet she didn’t complain,” Skawennati said. “She never said ‘why me?'”
“The resilience that exists in Kahnawake, she’s an example of that resilience,” DeSimone said. “The ability to continue to be, to live to come out on the other side.”
Kahnawake Cancer Support Group meetings are open to Kahnawa’kehró:non-cancer sufferers, their families, supporters, and anyone interested in learning more about the group. The group currently meets at 7 p.m. every first Tuesday of the month at KMHC.
For more information on the Cancer Support Group of Kahnawake, contact Carol Boyer Jacobs 450-635-3539, Josie McGregor 450-632-7202 or Rice at 450-638-3930, ext. 2324.
Savannah Stewart is a writer, editor and translator from Montreal who currently reports with The Eastern Door. She is an arts editor for Cult MTL and her work has also appeared in Briarpatch Magazine, Ricochet, Maisonneuve Magazine and The Rover. She tweets at @SavannahMTL.