‘Canadian Mother Teresa’ remembered

MONTREAL, Que. – Naomi Bronstein was remembered Friday as a great humanitarian whose quest to save the world’s children at times turned her own family’s life upside-down.

“She gave herself entirely to others, even if it meant sometimes that we had little left for us,” daughter Heidi Bronstein said in a tearful tribute in a Décarie Blvd. funeral chapel.

A Canadian flag covered the casket of Bronstein, 65, who died on Dec. 23 of heart disease in Guatemala, where she ran a mobile medical clinic for rural children.

The recipient of multiple awards, including the Order of Canada, Bronstein is credited with saving as many as 140,000 lives over four decades by providing medical care and adoptive families for poor and ill youngsters in Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea and Central America, Rabbi Alan Bright told mourners.

“Her life was proof that one woman can make a difference,” Bright told a funeral packed with family and friends. An overflow crowd watched the funeral by video link in an adjacent room.

Stubborn and single-minded, Bronstein earned the title “the swearing Mother Theresa,” for her tireless efforts on behalf of children, daughter Heidi Bronstein recalled.

In 1969, she began evacuating orphans from war-torn Vietnam and later founded an orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, from which the Khmer Rouge forced her to flee in 1975.

She brought hundreds of children to Canada from developing countries for life-saving surgery or adoption.

“She broke down borders between countries, manipulated politicians, crashed through red tape and barricades and in the end managed to save lives,” Heidi Bronstein said.

But Bronstein’s selfless devotion came at a price for her own 12 children, of whom seven were adopted.

“What I learned to share was not my toys and my food but rather my mother,” Heidi Bronstein said. “She believed that whatever we had, someone else needed it more.”

Having a mother bent on “saving the entire world” gave her children a unique perspective, Bronstein’s eldest son, Brian, told mourners.

He brought the entire room to tears when he thanked his mother for giving him “11 brothers and sisters that make me proud every day.”

Brian’s daughter, Meagan, 20, described her grandmother as an independent spirit focused on more important things than baking cookies with her grandchildren.

“Maybe she wasn’t made to be a grandmother,” Meagan said. “Maybe she was made to be a mother to everyone.”

In an interview after the service, daughter Tam-lien Bronstein, 41, said Bronstein saved her life by adopting her from a Vietnamese orphanage where the 3-year-old slept in a box under a bed. “I don’t think I would be alive because I was so sick,” said Tam-lien, now a mother of four in Bellerive, Mi.

Bronstein is survived by her 91-year-old mother, Tillie Segal, 11 of her children and her former husband of 30 years, Herbert Bronstein. A son, Sanh, died in 1989.

During the last years of her life, Bronstein was plagued by ill health but refused to leave Guatemala, where she lived alone while pursuing her life’s work.

“I’m so proud of her, but my heart is breaking,” said Segal, whose son, Joey, died in 2009 at age 69.