Sr. Ada Toner
At age 18, Ada Toner was still contemplating what to do with her life. She had no parents, no education and no profession. As well, within the span of a year, she had received marriage proposals from four different men.
"I was picking berries one day, and I looked over and asked myself which one of those guys would I like to spend the rest of my life with. Then I saw the face of Jesus, and I don't know if it was in the clouds or a feeling within me or what it was," she said.
This was her first calling to religious life — a calling she was reluctant to accept. She felt like a nobody, with nothing of value to offer the Church. But she took hold of the opportunity and on Sept. 8, 1936 joined the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception.
Toner, now 93, recently celebrated her 75th year in religious life. A celebration was held Aug. 28 at Our Lady of the Angels Church in Fort Saskatchewan.
"It's been a great life. I would not change anything," she said.
Toner was born March 19, 1918 in Grand Falls, N.B. Life was difficult right from the start. She was only 14 months old when her mother died. She and her sister were raised by her great aunt and her two bachelor brothers.
Even as a child, she worked. In a New Brunswick farmhouse she did housework for $2 a week. Working and looking after her sister did not leave much time for her studies.
"I had to drop out of school when I was 15. I'd already been five years in Grade 6," she said. "Sometimes I like to think that God chooses people to do great things because they don't know it's impossible. That's what happened to me."
In the novitiate, she quickly completed her Grade 12 equivalency. In only her second year with the congregation, she earned a teaching certificate and was sent across Canada to Vancouver to teach kindergarten in a slum area.
It was 10 years before she took her first trip home.
"We could only go home to visit if our parents paid the way. Well, I didn't have parents."
She spent a total of 18 years in Vancouver before being transferred to Saint John, N.B., to teach in the Catholic high school. She spent five years there and another five years in Winnipeg, all the time taking university courses and earning degrees in education and administration.
She came to Edmonton as principal of St. Gerard School in 1968, serving there until her retirement in 1978.
Some retirement! She reinvented herself during a retreat in Pecos, N.M., and was back in Edmonton to work at the new St. John Bosco Parish.
A year later, Toner was back in the Maritimes running a renewal centre in Fredericton. Four years later she was in Nova Scotia serving as coordinator of catechetics for the Annapolis Valley.
She became pastoral assistant at Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Fort Saskatchewan in 1984, looking after most of the parish programs, including the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, and preparation for Confirmation, First Communion and Reconciliation. The pastor was Father Leo Floyd.
"Father Leo trusted me. He would give me things to do and never look over my shoulder. I was asked to do things that I never dreamed I could, but it gave back my self-confidence, the fact that I could be of use."
She also worked as a pastoral assistant in Edson, Wainwright and Thorsby, as well as on five Indian reserves in northern British Columbia.
After another short stint in Vancouver working in two nursing homes, she asked to return to Fort Saskatchewan. She has been there nine years.
"I worked so hard for all those years that I had never had much time for my own spiritual development. The people here have been so good. They have shown me the face of God through their kindness, their acceptance, their support and their love," she said.
The parish library has been named after Toner. She built it during her time as pastoral assistant, and now she continues to look after it.
Today, Toner remains a busy woman. Apart from a hearing problem, she is in excellent health.
She is involved in the Catholic Women's League, visits the sick and elderly in their homes, leads prayers at funerals, visits Catholic schools and sometimes facilitates grieving sessions for prisoners at the Fort Saskatchewan jail.
Religious life has changed tremendously from 75 years ago.
Generations ago, nuns were vital to nursing, education and orphanages, but over the years the government took over those endeavours. So she questions the need for more sisters today.
"I would never encourage a young person to join religious life today because of their backgrounds and the way they're brought up nowadays," she told the WCR. "There's more sexuality, and even at kindergarten or younger they are taught to be little women or little men, and kids wear sexy clothes. It's just a whole different world."
Attaining wealth was never Toner's calling. But these days she finds that everybody's life centres around money.
"We need to build a Church, the Body of Christ. All the money men spend on stuff should be spent on taking courses getting trained in spirituality," said Toner.
Laypeople can accept important tasks in the Church. Volunteers are needed to visit the sick and elderly in hospitals. The need to care for others is always there.
"People caring for people — that's the Church!" she said.