WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Among Sr. Gertrude Sopracolle's many tasks is counselling people who feel they may have a religious vocation.
Religious women have seen their vocations change dramatically over the years. They have gone from running large institutions such as hospitals, fine art academies, schools and retreat houses to more modest ministries such as working with immigrants, abused women and inner city poor.
While the new work may have a lower profile, it is often much closer to the original intention of the founders of their religious orders. Smaller in number, religious women are returning to their roots.
Sister Marguerite Letourneau, leader of the Grey Nuns in Alberta and Saskatchewan, says following the transfer of its hospitals to lay-led Catholic institutions, the order dedicated itself to being present to people in a variety of new ministries.
"We were used to running the show and we have to learn now to be part of (other organizations) but not the leaders," she said. "Now we are more of a community of presence than anything else."
There are 35 Grey Nuns in Alberta and Saskatchewan and almost all are volunteering in something - from working with native people and tutoring students to teaching English conversation to newly-arrived immigrants and refugees to assisting patients at Youville Nursing Home in St. Albert and other nursing homes.
"It's amazing; they are always busy," Letourneau notes.
Sister Jeannine Coulombe, a Grey Nun for 53 years, recently returned from Bogota, Colombia, where she spent almost 14 years providing education programs to internally displaced people, especially children.
In the past, Coulombe taught aboriginal children in residential schools, taught religious education programs in the Northwest Territories, was in charge of formation of the congregation's novices in Edmonton, did counselling at a rehabilitation residence for women in Calgary and then returned to formation work in Montreal for a couple of years.
When vocations began to dry up, she left for Colombia, where her Grey Nuns colleagues needed help. Coulombe returned from Colombia last year and in September started teaching conversational English to new immigrants.
"As you can see, the core of my vocation has not changed," she says. "I go where there is a need. Whatever we do (as sisters) is because we are always reaching people in need."
Coulombe says she knows she is doing God's will teaching immigrants because "I prayed about it, I talked it over with my superior, everything fell into place and I feel great peace and joy."
Individual sisters and congregations need to listen to the Gospel and to the events of their lives, Coulombe says.
Sr. Germaine Chalifoux
"Our community listened to the Gospel when we changed, and we sold our hospitals and we got out of residential schools. It was time. The will of God was talking to us to let go of these big institutions. As Mother Teresa said, 'We are not called to do big deeds but to do small deeds with a lot of love.'"
Sister Diane Brennan, a member of the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul (Kingston), spends part of her time at Braemar High School, a school that helps pregnant and parenting teen mothers get an education in a supportive environment.
Brennan also works at Changing Together, a centre for immigrant women.
At Braemar, she nurses the babies of the students while they attend classes; at Changing Together she does the accounting. "Our motto is to look at the signs of the times and see the needs" says Brennan.
Brennan has done that masterfully over the years, transitioning with ease from one ministry to another. In her 49 years as a sister, she has served as school teacher, operator of a group home for single pregnant young women in Ontario and member of the leadership team of her congregation. She is also a trained spiritual director.
In 2007, she came to Edmonton and became administrator of Rosary Hall, a 20-bed residence for women with chronic mental illnesses. She served in that position until Rosary Hall closed last July. In December, she joined the board of Changing Together and was appointed treasurer.
Brennan said helping immigrant women improve their lives through Changing Together is based on the Gospel. "As Jesus said, 'When you accept the least of these among you, you are accepting me.' So anything that we do for these people is also accepting Christ."
What Brennan does now is not much different from what sisters did when the order was founded in 1861.
"We were founded to work with the poor in Kingston," she noted. "We looked out for the elderly; we had an orphanage and then went into teaching and hospitals."
In fact, the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul owned two hospitals in Alberta, both of which are currently operated by Covenant Health.
"We are going back to the beginnings of religious life," said Brennan. "We are again helping out the poor where they are at."
The Sisters of Charity of Providence of Western Canada, better known as Sisters of Providence, have also rid themselves of most large institutions, except for Providence Renewal Centre, a well-known retreat house in Edmonton.
They used to run two hospitals in British Columbia and a large nursing home in Calgary, among others. Now many of the 45 Sisters of Providence in Alberta serve in women's shelters, do hospital visiting, participate in parish ministries and feed the needy in the inner city.
In more than 50 years as a Sister of Providence, Sister Germaine Chalifoux has served as an elementary school teacher, catechist, missionary, vocation formation instructor and member of her congregation's leadership team.
WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Sr. Diane Brennan (left) works at her Changing Together office, assisted by Karen Sigurdson.
Now she is back on the leadership team but also volunteers on the board of Wings of Providence, an organization that provides programs and shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence.
"This is another way of being involved in what you would call the newer ministries," Chalifoux says. "For me, (this ministry) ties in with the Gospel – 'I came so you may have life and have it to the full.'
"It's just that when these women come they don't have life to the full. Their whole emphasis is getting away from an abusive situation."
One benefit of working in large institutions is that there were a lot more sisters "and you had the support of other people working in the same environment," says Chalifoux.
"It was a little easier to organize one's community life because there were regular hours in a sense, whereas in these new ministries we have to make more of an effort to work on building community."
However, the new ministries "tie us more directly to our roots," added Chalifoux, noting Blessed Emilie Gamelin founded the Sisters of Providence in Montreal in 1843 to serve the poor and less fortunate in society.
"I really love taking care of the people," says Providence Sister Thecla Becher, a former cook, group home worker and nurse, who has been volunteering at the Anawim Food Bank in the inner city on and off since 1991.
Becher used to sort, pack and distribute food but for the past three years she has been interviewing people to find out their needs. This allows her to get close to the clients and establish friendly relationships with them.
"People don't realize there are so many good, honourable people among the poor," she laments. "They are just like you and me."
Sister Gertrude Sopracolle, a member of the Ursuline Sisters of Prelate for 52 years, more or less continues to do what she has always done – teaching. However, now she doesn't need a classroom.
For a number of years now Sopracolle has been "accompanying people on their spiritual journeys."
"I have people coming here pretty well every day," says Sopracolle, 75, who works out of her own apartment.
Apart from that, she provides spiritual direction, leads Scripture study groups, takes part in the Roman Catholic-Mennonite dialogue, does RCIA work at St. Albert Parish and is spiritual advisor for the leadership team of St. Vincent de Paul in the greater Edmonton area.
"My vocation is totally linked to the Gospel," she says. "The externals can look quite different, but prayer, community and service are there."
The Ursulines of Prelate are largely a teaching order.
In Prelate, Sask., they ran the renowned St. Angela's Academy, a boarding school that closed in 2008. But Sopracolle, who used to be principal of the academy, says the word "teacher" doesn't quite describe the sisters. "We see ourselves as educators for life."
The sister believes she has been put on earth to see the inner beauty and goodness of the people that come into her life and to reflect that back to them so that they can claim it.
"That has been my call; so whether I was a (school) principal or a missionary teacher in Zimbabwe or now accompanying people in their spiritual journeys, it's still like that."
The majority of the Ursuline Sisters of Prelate work in Saskatchewan. There are three in Edmonton, including Sopracolle and Patricia Kaliciak, who is in charge of funeral liturgies at St. Thomas More Parish and also does catechetical work.