Sr. Dora Durand was the last of the Grey Nuns to serve in the Northwest Territories, leaving after '30 wonderful years.'
As a child, growing up in Legal, Sister Dora Durand watched a French movie, I Have Chosen Charity.
The film featured sisters serving the aboriginal people in the Northwest Territories. They visited people’s homes, travelled from place to place via dogsleds and got to know the people closely.
The movie, coupled with the religious upbringing by her parents, played an influential role in Durand’s eventual decision to join the convent and become a Grey Nun. As with the sisters in the movie, her goal was to venture to the Canadian North and serve the people there.
The Grey Nuns served in churches, hospitals and schools in the Northwest Territories for 143 years. Durand, 67, was the last of the Grey Nuns to leave.
“I have been very happy in my religious life. I wouldn’t trade places with anybody else. I feel that God has spoiled me terribly in many, many ways,” said Durand.
The Grey Nuns were the first congregation to aid the Oblates in Western Canada. They arrived in 1844, opening a convent in St. Boniface to teach young girls. The first Northwest Territories mission was in 1867 in Fort Providence.
“You can imagine how things looked in 1867. It took them over a month to get from Montreal to St. Boniface. They had to stay in St. Boniface because they couldn’t travel during the winter. According to the history books, it wasn’t an easy trip, that’s for sure,” said Durand.
While the Oblates focused on missionary work and spiritual matters, the sisters’ duties were in the realm of such practical services as education, healthcare and social welfare. They opened schools and hospitals, took in orphans and cared for the abandoned elderly.
The number of Grey Nuns in the North peaked in the 1950s, when there were up to 120 sisters there.
Those early sisters and priests lived difficult lives. Their main struggles involved survival and manual work – hunting, fishing, building shelter and chopping firewood.
But they were not plagued with the moral issues of today. Durand said through the years new problems arose, including abortions, drugs, alcohol and violence. Modern society had sneaked up on them much too fast.
Durand had spent 20 years doing pastoral work in southern Alberta. In 1980 she received a call to replace another sister in the Northwest Territories. It was a dream come true.
“I always had a desire of going to the North, but it never materialized until after 25 years of religious life. I was very happy to go to the North because that’s where my heart was in the beginning. I spent 30 wonderful years in the North,” said Durand.
She did parish work for about six years in Inuvuk, then a year in Fort Smith. Next, she went to Yellowknife, from August 1987 until December 2010.
She managed the Trappers Lake Spirituality Centre, a retreat house in Yellowknife. Her responsibilities included everything from cooking and cleaning to hospitality and driving guests to and from the airport.
Her best experiences involve the people of the North, who she referred to as wonderful, unsophisticated, lovable and simple to deal with.
“Their lifestyle is totally different from ours. We go by the clock, and they don’t. If they say something is happening at 2 o’clock, it might be 3 o’clock before it happens. It takes patience, but I found that easy to deal with,” she said.
Ministering to the youth is the single greatest need in the North, she said. They are good people, but seem to be at a loss due to the influx of drugs and alcohol.
Most of her religious life, Durand has lived in the countryside or rural communities. Her most difficult challenge now is adjusting to city life in Edmonton, and not having direct contact with the people she knows in the Northwest Territories.
About five months ago she took over as leader at Villa Marguerite, and is busily making new friends, and attending Mass at Annunciation Parish.
As the sisters age, retire and pass away, the Grey Nuns face the same uncertainties as other religious congregations. The youngest Grey Nuns in Alberta are approaching 60 years old. Still, this is not a concern for Durand.
“Marguerite d’Youville, when she founded the community, said something very important. She said that if someday we are called to disappear that all of our assets go to the poor. What we’re seeing today, she saw it coming over 200 years ago,” said Durand.
The gap is wide between women of Durand’s generation seeking a vocation and today’s young women. Today’s women focus on the short-term, perhaps feeding the hungry in a Third World country for a summer, whereas Durand and her contemporaries went someplace and stayed there for the long haul.
“You look at our young sisters who left Montreal for the North. They didn’t go home every year. They were allowed to go home once every 10 years,” said Durand.
“Their commitment was long-range, but today we live in an instant world, and everything has to be right now. We live in a world that’s totally different from when we were younger.”