After a lifetime of service to her family and her community, Brenda Dearhouse Fragnito passed away on May 11, 2022, at the age of 75.
She leaves behind five children and her beloved husband, and scores of Kahnawa’kehró:non who benefitted from the community’s Cancer Support Group, Dearhouse’s legacy.
“Brenda was one of the founding members amongst Josie McGregor, the late Rita McComber and others,” said Candida Rice, a nurse at Kateri Memorial Hospital Centre (KMHC).
She first met Dearhouse in 1989 when she volunteered with the newly-formed group.
“It didn’t take much time for me to come to see the strength, determination and resiliency of this soft-spoken woman who devoted her life to supporting others with cancer.”
Rice was not the only one who was struck by Dearhouse’s resolve and kind heart – not by a long shot.
“Brenda, to me, is joy. To me, she was just a bright light. An unwavering light at a dark time for people,” said Kateri Delisle.
Delisle joined the group in 1997 after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She was looking for information, guidance and support, and she found all three at those meetings.
“I used to always describe it as extremely welcoming in probably the most difficult moments of one’s life. There was a real warmth and comfort that I took from it,” she said. “I really felt cared for. And Brenda was a big factor in that.
“It makes me very emotional, just talking about the kind of person she was. It makes me think how fortunate I was to come across her in my life.”
Delisle said that Dearhouse was exceptionally skilled at finding the moments of levity in the serious conversations the group had, and had a wealth of knowledge about living through cancer to share with the group’s members.
“She just knew where to place humour to make people feel comfortable,” said Delisle. “She had experienced a lot, and she was willing to share all that with anyone who wanted information.”
It’s easy in 2022 to overlook what a significant idea it was to create a cancer support group, particularly for Onkwehón:we. Kahnawake’s group is believed to be the first of its kind for an Indigenous community.
“You’ve got to remember that in the 90s, people weren’t talking about their cancer stories that much. It was not something that was talked about,” said Lidia DeSimone, a nurse who worked on cancer research in the community.
She said she admired Dearhouse’s impetus, openness and persistence, which she attributed to the group’s success.
“She knew that people weren’t just going to openly say, ‘gee, I’m going to go and talk about this.’ So, that’s the gem I have in my heart of Brenda,” she said.
DeSimone came to be good friends with Dearhouse, a friendship that was helped along by the fact that DeSimone is Italian, and Dearhouse married an Italian, Luigi “Louie” Fragnito.
Fragnito is recognized as an important component of the success of the group, too.
“Her husband was quite a supporter,” said Eugene Montour, who has been a member of the group for the past six years. “She didn’t drive, but every time we had a meeting, he would bring her to the meeting.
“He would sit in his car for however long the meetings were, and sometimes our meetings lasted for more than two hours.”
“It would be very remiss of me not to mention that Brenda had told me early on that she could not have been so involved with the group if it not were for her husband,” said Rice. “It did not take long to see how much Louie loved and supported his wife.”
“They were loyal to one another. They did everything together,” said Dearhouse’s daughter Skawennati. “A lot of people said he was part of the Cancer Support Group because he drove Brenda, and he waited for her.”
Skawennati remembers her mother as a kind, caring woman who, for many years, took her to meetings with the Quebec Native Women’s Association that eventually led to the creation of Bill C-31, which reinstated Indian Status for Indigenous women who had married non-status men. She also worked closely with Mary Two-Axe Earley.
“She was a great mom. She was one of those moms, she had five kids, and we each thought we were her favourite,” she recalled.
“One time when I was young, I said, ‘mommy, we would be rich if we didn’t have five kids.’ And she immediately said, ‘we’re rich because we have five kids.’”
Dearhouse lived through two pandemics, said Skawennati: 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 through Indian Day School.
“So much sadness, and yet she didn’t complain,” said Skawennati. “She never said ‘why me?’”
“The resilience that exists in Kahnawake, she is an example of that resilience,” said DeSimone. “The ability to continue to be, to live through to come out the other side.”
The Cancer Support Group of Kahnawake meetings are open to Kahnawa’kehró:non with cancer, their families, supporters and anyone wanting to learn what the group is about. The group presently meets at 7:00 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 currently reporting with The Eastern Door. She is the contributing editor for the arts for Cult MTL and her work has also appeared in Briarpatch Magazine, Ricochet, Maisonneuve Magazine and The Rover. She tweets at @SavannahMTL.