Margaret & Bob Nally: Fostering Creative Community

Over this past summer, a strong interest emerged among Mayor Zehr and Mayor Halloran and members of the Mayors’ Dinner Committee that the 25th Mayors’ Dinner should celebrate The Working Centre community. We thought of many different ways to do this and we are pleased to announce that Margaret and Bob Nally will be Guest Narrators of The Working Centre story and 25th Mayors’ Dinner Guests of Honour. We feel blessed to honour Margaret and Bob not only  for their role as spiritual generators of The Working Centre community some thirty years ago, but also for their continuing life journey towards building community.

The Mayors’ Dinner became a fundraising project of The Working Centre after we successfully held a dinner in 1988 to honour Kitchener Mayor Dominic Cardillo, recognizing his 25 years of service as a municipal politician. The dinner has evolved over these 25 years to uniquely recognize long-term community commitment. Our list of Guests of Honour is made up of outstanding leaders who have spent their lifetime weaving community into the core of their lifework whether in business, philanthropy, social service, sports, social justice or volunteerism. The Mayors’ Dinner draws our citizens together and publicly recognizes and celebrates community commitment.
To celebrate The Working Centre community, we have asked Margaret and Bob Nally to narrate the story of The Working Centre. This distinctive role is a natural fit for Margaret and Bob. The Working Centre is at its heart a spiritual commitment to address poverty and unemployment, not only through programs and services but through a whole hearted commitment to community and the foundational  values that make this possible.

The Practice of Community

The Working Centre commitment to community took root around the kitchen table of the Nally’s. It was not the result of an accidental meeting, but rather part of a continuum, a practice on the part of Margaret and Bob of welcoming, inviting spiritual reflection, gathering people together and of being a leaven for entrepreneurial creativity.  When Margaret reflects on service, she likes to quote the Indian writer Tagore’s eloquent poem: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service is joy.”

Back in the early 1980’s, the Nally’s had just been in Canada for a little over ten years. Emigrating as a young couple from Ireland, they had found their way to Kitchener when Bob was accepted into the Electrical Engineering Coop program at the University of Waterloo. By Christmas 1970, Bob had a coop job placement lined up for the beginning of January at the City of Kitchener’s old City Hall. Yet, with bright job prospects, the young couple had run out of money struggling to make ends meet while renting a run-down house around Weber and Cedar with their baby daughter Sue.

10 years later, Bob already had his masters in Electrical Engineering and was Director of Engineering at NCR in Waterloo. A second child Aoife was now 8 years old and Margaret had completed her BA in Religious Studies while working at WLU. Their immigrating experience had marked them profoundly. As they built their family, church and work connections they consciously chose community.

The Global Community Centre

Margaret chose to work at Global Community Centre as the church animator. Her motivation was the exploration of the social dimension of the Gospel. The early 1980’s was a time when Catholic social teaching was aligned with Latin American Liberation Theology. Civil war was raging in El Salvador and the Sandinistas were under siege from the Contra’s funded by Reagan’s White House.

When Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down by a Junta death squad, the solidarity movement supporting the El Salvadorian people only grew. Bishop Paul Redding of the Hamilton Diocese was present at Romero’s funeral when the military disrupted the service with bombs and army sharp shooters. Bishop Redding personally called Margaret to tell her about the situation in El Salvador and to encourage her solidarity work.   

Social Justice in the Early 1980s

There was a great deal of work to do. The Christian churches had aligned themselves into coalitions and at the grassroots in Kitchener-Waterloo, Global Community Centre was the hub for supporting groups like the InterChurch Committee on Latin America, Amnesty International, The Taskforce for Corporate Responsibility, Project Ploughshares, and Ten Days for World Development. This was concrete work supporting high school fasts and retreats, writing letters, and organizing educational forums. Hulene Montgomery and Lorna Van Mossel worked closely with Global on the work of organizing churches to support the Vietnamese refugees.
Margaret and Bob remember holding a drumming circle in the basement of St. Michael’s Catholic Church as part of an educational initiative with Project North and the Berger Commission while Sunday mass proceeded directly above. In the early 1980’s, Good Friday meant a bus trip to Litton Industries in Toronto for a Stations of the Cross ceremony to protest the development of cruise missiles.   

The Working Centre Takes Root

As young married university students, Stephanie and I started helping Margaret on projects like memorial services for Oscar Romero and the INFACT boycott of Nestles over the promotion of infant formula in developing countries. In March 1982, after a Global Community Centre dinner, with many people gathered at the Nally’s, the discussion turned to understanding unemployment and poverty in Kitchener-Waterloo. It was Margaret who challenged us to consider ways to learn how to apply social justice ideas to our own community. Within weeks, with the help of Patrice Reitzel (now Thorn) who shared the job of church animator, an application was filled out to another inter-church group called PLURA dedicated to supporting grassroots local social justice projects. By May The Working Centre had a name, an office above Global Community Centre on Queen Street South and an advisory group made up of Margaret and Bob Nally, Patrice Reitzel, Anna Hemmindinger, Jane Reble and Leo McNeil.

Under Margaret and Patrice’s guidance we also had a model to develop an alternative employment service dedicated to understanding the deeper issues of unemployment and poverty. The praxis model that we continue to use even today was called the Pastoral Circle. It starts with learning the experience, doing social analysis, developing theological and ethical reflection and then creative action. The Working Centre had much more than that. It grew directly from the community of Global Community Centre, a community where Margaret and Bob had offered their many gifts towards its growth.

Community and Spiritual Work

The foundational efforts of the early 1980’s only reinforced a lifetime of effort on the part of the Nally’s who continued and expanded their social justice and entrepreneurial work. Margaret worked for almost ten years at Global Community Centre where she also became closely involved with the  K-W House Church at 101 David Street.  While working with a community organization on Race Relations  Margaret became increasingly aware of the plight of Refugees in our area.  She brought her concern for housing and orientation to the House Church and from there the Reception House project for government sponsored refugees was formed. 

Margaret trained and practiced as a Spiritual Director and has been a Chaplain at Mary’s Place, an emergency shelter for families who are homeless, for almost 10 years. Her and Bob are members of Kitchener-Waterloo House Churches for over 20 years, affiliated with the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada. The Mennonite Church became Bob and Margaret’s spiritual home. 

Margaret has provided leadership in retreats and days of prayer and has performed wedding services for many social justice minded young couples.  She has also served on the board of the YWCA for 6 years, the last two as President. She is currently President of the Board of Mennonite Central Committee Ontario as well as a director of Menno-Homes. Margaret and Bob  have traveled extensively in the developing world visiting and participating in MCC and other short-term projects in Israel/Palestine, Iran, Guatemala, Jamaica, Brazil and West Africa.

Entrepreneurial Work

Meanwhile, Bob built his entrepreneurial skills around systems design, image processing and pattern recognition. He has transferred this knowledge into an extensive career of successful commercialization and innovation of advanced technologies, management of intellectual property, building management teams and business plans for high-tech companies in a range of industries and markets.

Bob left NCR to become the Commercial Development Officer for the University of Waterloo with the mandate to transfer and commercialize technology through forming new start-up technology companies, mainly from the University, based on research breakthroughs. During his tenure, Bob cofounded more than fifteen information technology and environmental technology companies.

Clean-Tech Innovation

Bob has been active in the development of several clean-tech companies through Canadian Venture Founders. He has been part of investment and management teams that have established such companies as Biorem Technologies Inc. which aims to be the world leader in design and implementation of biofilter technology for air purification and odor removal. Ecoval Inc. is a developer and marketer of its brand of 100% natural, environmentally safe fertilizers, a patented non-toxic organic herbicide and patented tree recovery systems. Another company, TurboSonic is a global supplier of air pollution control and liquid atomization technologies.  Waterloo Barrier Inc. has installed over one million square of toxic waste containment.

RDM and Virtek

Bob has been associated with two other significant local companies that he has helped found and  build from start-up. RDM Corporation is a provider of solutions for the electronic commerce and payment processing industries, providing Remote Check Deposit systems and Web-based image management and transaction processing services for retailers, small businesses and financial institutions. The second local company, Virtek is an innovator in the production of laser systems that creates precision laser-based templating and CNC manufacturing solutions.

Bob’s entrepreneurial drive is unique in itself. Over a 40 year career he has progressively invested in a commitment to clean technology, the development of local jobs and the use of technology for the common good.

The Bells Have Meaning

Margaret and Bob have served as models for young and old, all of whom recognize in them a spiritual grounding that is rooted deeply in their core. Margaret commented on this core in a talk to the local Mennonite Economic Development Associates chapter.

“When I travel to Muslim countries and hear the call to prayer at 4:00 am, I don’t grump about the time or the noise – I am brought back in time to my early days growing up all 9 of us, on the other side of a 15 foot convent wall where daily life of the sisters was regulated by the bells calling all to prayer. Morning, noon and night – bells – most probably disliked by most but I loved them and I still do.   The bells rang out all over the city reminding everyone to stop at noon and six for food and family but also to set a marker in human time for the intervention of God into daily life.”

The Working Centre in its early years was marked by a spiritual call to serve others and build community. The model we set out to create was far beyond a social service, it required new ways of thinking, new ways of acting. Over 30 years, Margaret and Bob have offered guidance, financial support, thoughtful insight and in their own lives, a full commitment to the work of social justice, entrepreneurial creativity, and inclusion.   We are looking forward to a wonderful celebration of the 25th Mayors’ Dinner and the 30 year anniversary of The Working Centre.

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