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Catholic Vancouver June 26, 2018

After 65 years, sisters unite at March for Life 

By Agnieszka Krawczynski

Agnes West (left) reunites with her foster sister, Evelyn, after 65 years. (Photos by Patricia McNeilage / Special to The B.C. Catholic)

VICTORIA—Rain fell and bus passengers pressed their faces against foggy windows to watch as an elderly woman stepped off the bus, stood in a parking lot, and waited for a sister she hadn’t seen in 65 years.

As Agnes West, a parishioner at Holy Rosary Cathedral, stalled on the asphalt, a small car swung into the lot and another elderly woman jumped out and ran toward her.

“She came running directly to me and she grabbed me! She didn’t know if it was me or not. ‘Are you Agnes?’ And she had tears coming down her face. She was holding me so tight,” said West.

“I started crying! And she was putting this necklace around my neck, Mom’s pearl necklace. She was so happy.”

West was born in Smithers Landing, B.C. She lived with her parents and many siblings until about age 10, when her father became very ill and was transported to a hospital in Prince Rupert, and she was sent to the care of Lejac residential school more than 300 kilometres away.

She lived at school for one year, then returned home and was put in the care of her oldest sister back in Smithers Landing. That’s when, she said, things became difficult.

“My sister wasn’t very nice. It was kind of abusive,” West told The B.C. Catholic. A neighbour “was going around and saw me, and he went and reported it to the Indian agent,” she said.

“Next thing I knew, I was with Mr. and Mrs. Pye.”

Her foster parents lived in Burns lake, just over 100 kilometres away from home. She was a hairdresser, he stocked grocery shelves, and they had two children: Evelyn (9) and baby Philip. For the next year, the Pyes were family.

“I called them my parents, because I loved them very much,” said West. “Mrs. Pye always prayed for me. Mr. Pye always called me his daughter. They took me as their child. They were so attached to me, and I was too.”

West was 15 years old when she moved back to Smithers Landing. Her abusive older sister had married and moved away, and West preferred ranch life to public school.

Shortly after moving back, though, she became tired of ranch life, too. She sneaked out of her home, moved in with her cousins in Smithers, and stumbled quite by accident into a job in health care when some nuns who ran a hospital realized she had run away from home and decided to put her to use in their children’s ward.

Agnes West with a photo of herself at nursing school. In her right hand, she holds a necklace given to her by her foster sister Evelyn. (Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)

After two years with the sisters, West was sent to Vancouver for formal nursing training. She then launched what became a 40-year nursing career in hospitals from B.C. to California, including Burnaby General, St. Mary’s, and Vancouver General.

Though she’d only lived with the Pye family for about one year, she had a deep love for them and phoned often. She even travelled north to visit them a few times.

“I stayed in touch with them over the years, because I really loved them,” said West.

Mrs. Pye would send her Catholic books to read, and give updates about Evelyn, who had moved to Victoria and was working as a teacher, and Philip, who became an RCMP officer, married, and moved to Edmonton.

About one year ago, West learned Mr. Pye passed away, and Mrs. Pye had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. So, she tried to reach Evelyn.

For the next year, the two sisters hoped their paths would cross, but they kept missing each other. Finally, West told Evelyn she’d be at the March for Life in Victoria May 10.

They nearly missed each other again; Evelyn could not find West amid the large crowd huddled under umbrellas at the legislature buildings. When West caught a bus to the ferry that would take her home, Evelyn became stuck in rush hour traffic.

The bus driver agreed to stop briefly at a parking lot, and a murmur spread among the passengers. Patricia McNeilage, a member of Sacred Heart Parish, was among them and watched the action unfold. “It was beautiful,” she said. “Agnes had so much faith to wait there, knowing her sister would come.”

In that nondescript lot, after 65 years, the sisters reunited.

“It was out of this world. She wouldn’t get me go. She was holding so tight and crying, just crying,” West said. “I feel like I owe them something, I have to keep in touch with them.”

West plans to visit her ‘Mom’ with Alzheimer’s in Edmonton. Though her memory is failing, “I have a feeling when I go there, she might remember me. You never know.”