CCN PHOTO | DEBORAH GYAPONG
Sr. Miriam, Ukeritis says people want to pretend they've got it all together.
OTTAWA — Southdown Institute CEO Sister Miriam Ukeritis describes the priests and men and women religious who come through her doors as “wounded healers.”
Ukeritis challenged the stigma that can attach to priests or religious who are sent to the residential treatment program that started 45-years ago as a residential program to treat priests with alcohol problems.
Over the years Southdown has expanded its mission so that it now helps those with a range of addictions and mental illnesses.
“The stigma is decreasing but it is not gone,” she said. But those who have completed the average 14-week residential program “can tell the good news.”
The mission of the 45-year old treatment facility is “healthy leaders for a healthy Church,” using the best of the psychological sciences combined with “the wisdom of the Catholic spiritual tradition,” Ukeritis said.
She was speaking to Ottawa priests and lay leaders gathered for a pastoral day May 19.
In response to a question from a priest who spoke of the stigma attached to a brother priest who was sent to Southdown, Ukeritis stressed “It’s how you as ministers receive them back.”
“What are the jokes you tell around those who are sick?” she asked, referring especially to jokes about mental illness. This can be an “invitation to you” to examine your attitudes.
At any given time, 16 to 24 men and women are living at the facility that sits on 100 acres of former farmland in Aurora, Ont. Ukeritis said she and her staff “acknowledge the courage it takes to look at their strengths and weaknesses.”
The candid self-examination during the program is “as important a ministerial assignment as any other,” she said, noting residents are often sent to Southdown by their bishops.
Most of those now availing themselves of the program (80 per cent) struggle with anxiety or depression, she said. Personality disorders, such as obsessive compulsive behaviours, affect 69 per cent. About 33 per cent come for help with addictions.
But these addictions are not only to substances such as alcohol, but what she calls “process addictions” that are on the increase. These include spending/hoarding, food, gambling, and sex and love. “There are 12-step programs for all of these.”
The reasons why people come to Southdown include ministerial boundary-crossing or violations of celibate chastity; stage of life issues related to grief, loss of parents, loss of ministry, parish closings; sexual disorders; and cognitive decline that manifests in ways that are “fearful, troublesome or problematic,” she said.
Some have experienced traumatic experiences, such as witnessing the Rwandan genocide or massacres by Peru’s Shining Path radicals.
But the facility, which welcomes English-speaking people from around the world, is far from a gloomy place.
The Sister of St. Joseph said she “never heard so much laughter” before she came to head Southdown in 2003.
The folks who come not only work hard and struggle, but also “have a lot of fun” and “relate to each other as human people.”
Everyone has a degree of brokenness, but most of us “relate to each other in terms of our strengths,” she said. “That can be very stressful.”
“When the dark side shows up, we want to hide it,” she said. “People want to pretend they’ve got it all together.”
The issues Southdown residents face are “human issues not unlike those you and your family face,” she said.
Just because someone is ordained or makes promises as a religious, they don’t cease to be human beings, she said.
“Southdown is the gift of the Canadian laity to the Church,” Ukeritis said, noting the facility receives no government money. It is funded by the fees paid by the residents and donations.
The institute has “achieved an international reputation,” she noted. “Our belief is that the genders have been hurt by each other.” At Southdown, “they have the opportunity to heal one another.”