Senior centre founder about to turn 100

Mary McDonnell, 99, will turn 100 on June 22. For nearly half her life, she was a driving force first in creating the Active Lifestyle Centre and then helping to run it.

By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Mary McDonnell is living proof active living pays off.

The Copper Terrace resident, a founding member of Chatham’s Active Lifestyle Centre (ALC), turns 100 on June 22.

Her involvement with the facility has been her life-long passion.

“The centre was the most important thing in my life for 48 years,” the McDonnell told The Voice in a recent interview, adding she just retired from treasurer’s position at age 96.

“I had to stop because of my eyesight,” she added. “But my mind is still sharp.”

Born Mary Lacina in Czechoslovakia in 1921, McDonnell immigrated to Kent County with her parents at age 2. She grew up in Charing Cross in a house that is still standing, and went on to marry Frank Bartosek in 1940, with whom she had daughters Joanne and Nancy.

McDonnell was a stay-at-home mom and her husband ran Frank’s Service Station at the corner of St. Clair Avenue and Gregory Drive in Chatham.

But when Frank passed away, she found herself at a loss and decided to reach out. With the help of a young priest named Father Conlon, she and her friend Catherine Flanagan started a social coffee and cards group for area widows and widowers at St. Ursula’s Catholic Church.

Now called the Maple City Centre for Older Adults, the group moved on, opening a modest drop-in space at a Chatham restaurant called Spooners in 1970.

Good news travelled fast and with increasing membership, they opted to rent a wing at the Chatham Cultural Centre in 1982, becoming the Maple City Senior Centre.

In 1989, members finally decided the group needed its own digs and the Active Lifestyle Centre was born.

At the time the City of Chatham was looking to build a new arena, but the ambitious seniors decided their project was just as important.

McDonnell said members marched on city hall to sway council’s decision.

“We had to change their minds,” she said.

Securing land was the next step. This was aided by John Bradley, who gifted the centre with a parcel of land at 20 Merritt Avenue.

Funding for the project came from the City of Chatham, the provincial government and fundraising.

Eventually, McDonnell said, membership rose to 1,600, making it the largest senior’s centre in Southwestern Ontario.

A full range of programming for the 50-plus crowd was, and continues to be, offered, featuring everything from billiards to quilting to Tai Chi.

McDonnell stayed involved with the centre at every turn, earning many accolades.

Asked about the changes she has witnessed over the past century, including living through the Second World War, McDonnell said the introduction of computers is the greatest change she has witnessed.

She has managed to take it all in stride.

Her recipe for healthy and happy life includes being involved and engaging in mental and physical activities.

“Staying active is the key,” she said.

McDonnell married Chatham lawyer Don McDonnell in later years, meeting him when he was doing some work for the centre. But he also passed away.

McDonnell’s daughter Joanne said her mother remains active at Copper Terrace, advocating for the rights of residents in long-term care.

The birthday girl has three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.







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