A Force of Nature

Jackie Rosati is painting a mural of an Ontario waterfall at the Villa Colombo, which she and her husband helped found and where she continues to volunteer. She is 85 and high up on a scaffold. Nobody is going to tell her to get down. That is a nice metaphor for Jackie’s life and a testament to her indomitable spirit – the girl who arrived in North America via Ellis Island, defied expectations to become a nurse, married a dashing airman and went on to become a pillar of the Italian-Canadian community, known for her energy and generosity.

Now, even at the age of 92, Giaconda (Jackie) Rosati is a force. Petite and gracious, she is telling anecdote after anecdote about the inexhaustible adventures she has experienced over the course of life. Born in Italy in 1924, her family immigrated to North America in 1932, passing through Ellis Island. Her father took them to Welland, Ontario, where he worked in the coal yards. After high school, Jackie made the bold choice to leave home and travel to Toronto to train as a nurse at St. Michael’s Hospital. It was 1943, during the war, and she worked hard to succeed. After graduating, she received a scholarship to study for six months as an operating room nurse before being hired full time. She found herself an OR supervisor at the age of very young age of 23.

A patient of Jackie’s was horrified that the young nurse lived alone and insisted that Jackie come to dinner. The woman’s son answered the door – Elio Rosati, who had served in the RCAF as a navigator during the Burma campaign of WWII. He was 35 to her 26, but immediately pursued her, calling every day for three weeks before proposing. She didn’t say yes right away, but they did get married.

Elio was a gifted businessman, and he and his partner prospered. Jackie then suggested Elio partner with his younger brother, building steel cranes, and they went on to even greater success. Jackie had a daughter and later went to work as an industrial nurse, writing ground-breaking reports and going on the speaking circuit. The couple travelled around the world, visiting 80 countries in total, including the reunions of Elio’s former squadron. Back home, Jackie met prime ministers (she danced with Pierre Trudeau) and governors general.

With success came the opportunity to give back. Elio got involved with the Canadian Italian Business Professionals Association, and Jackie founded their Ladies’ Auxiliary in 1952. There she organized pasta dinners to welcome newcomers and raise funds for a variety of charities. In 2012 the CIBPA hosted the inaugural Jackie Rosati Awards of Excellence, honouring seven women for achievements across different professions. She has been showered with other honours and awards, most recently the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Award.

Jackie and Elio were instrumental in founding Villa Colombo in 1976 (now grown into Villa Charities), helping raise the necessary $13 million. Jackie ran the centre for its first 16 months before high blood pressure forced her to step down. That’s where Jackie, up on the scaffold on the fifth floor, painted her waterfall fresco. She and Elio also helped set up the Columbus Centre. There she oversaw the cultural activities, and cooked for a year.

After a life of community building and philanthropy, she looks back on her life with pride, having overcome so much and come so far. That includes reconnecting with the little girl of two and half that Jackie and her husband had adopted many years ago, when Jackie was involved with the Catholic Children’s Aid Society. Jackie is very much involved with the now married woman, who has three children. What’s her secret? “I need to keep busy, and I’m happiest when I’m giving back. I have so much to be grateful for.” In addition to many gifts over the course of her life, Jackie has made a number of bequests in her will, including to St. Michael’s Hospital, where she trained so many years ago. “It was where my world opened up,” she says. Nobody says no to Jackie Rosati.