Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 7, 2000
Sisters find lay associates
As traditional vocations dwindle, orders find new life working with laity
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
With plummeting numbers of vocations in recent decades, religious orders have been turning to the laity for help in carrying out their mission.
At least 13 of the 33 orders of women with branches in the Edmonton Archdiocese have associates - lay women and men who form a special relationship with the orders but not as traditional sisters.
Congregations see the growing associate movement as a response to the Second Vatican Council's call for lay people to live a committed spiritual life that runs parallel to that of religious who observe vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Associates usually participate in an orientation period ranging from six to 18 months, sometimes longer depending on the order, during which they learn about an order's ministry and the charism of its founder. They usually meet once a month to pray, share their experiences and plan ministry.
Associates take no vows but make a commitment of one or two years, in some cases three years, which is renewable and can, in some congregations, be extended to a lifelong commitment.
Associates say they are looking for spirituality, community and ministry. They are happy to be included in chapters, retreats and assemblies but are not pressing for a vote or wanting to live with the religious or get involved in governance and financial issues.
"I was looking for a chance to work in fellowship with people who love Jesus and who believe in prayer," said Faith Milton, a child welfare worker in Whitecourt and associate with the Sisters of Charity of St. Louis for the past three years. "Sometimes it's hard to find like-minded people outside."
Milton, one of six associates of the Sisters of Charity in Alberta, joined the group after she left the order. "It was not the life I wanted to live but I still wanted to be with the sisters and take part in their prayer life."
The numbers of associates of religious orders is currently estimated at 11,000 in Canada, including some 200 in Edmonton and other parts of Alberta, and 15,000 in the United States. They are represented by the North American Conference of Associates and Religious, a networking organization that connects over 155 religious congregations of women and men who sponsor lay associate groups.
Some religious orders in the U.S. have expressed fear that religious orders may lose their identity, and finances, if associates are allowed membership. None of that is evident in the Edmonton Archdiocese, where most religious orders welcome associates with open arms.
However, many orders have drawn up agreements stating the congregations have no legal or financial responsibilities to the associates.
Since 1988, 25 Edmonton single and married women and one female Lutheran minister have become associates of the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception. The group includes inner-city volunteers, teachers, hairdressers, university professors and homemakers.
"I think they are looking to deepen their own spirituality," said Sister Aline Roulston, superior of the order. "They want to follow St. Vincent de Paul in that charism of sharing with the poor."
Agathe Swiderski, a retired bilingual secretary and mother of two adult children, became an associate with the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception in 1994. "It's a personal call," she says. "I'd always wanted to work with the poor and never knew how to go about it. The sisters gave me an opportunity to get involved in the inner city."
In her role as an associate, Swiderski and five other members of the group give free haircuts to poor people every Tuesday at the inner-city Bissell Centre. They do an average of 30 heads a week. Swiderski also visits the sick at the Royal Alexandra Hospital and participates in various ministries at St. Matthew's Parish.
Since she became an associate, Swiderski's life has changed for the better. "You don't live for yourself anymore, you live for others," she says. "My days are full but I feel fulfilled in every way - in my social life and in my personal life."
Other associates of the Sisters of Charity of Immaculate Conception help serve meals to the poor or participate in literacy programs in the inner city.
"This gives us a purpose and a mission," Swiderski said. "The sisters are prolonging their work through us."
The associate movement is "mutually enriching," said Roulston. "They bring to our lives something that we don't have and we hope we bring to their lives something they don't have."
The Grey Nuns have 26 associates in Edmonton, St. Albert and Morinville. The group, which began in 1983, includes nurses, teachers, social workers, homemakers. There are three men in the group, including an Edmonton priest.
"I think they want to live the spirituality of Mother Marguerite d'Youville and at the same time enrich their own spiritual lives," said Sister Lucille Damphousse, the director of the associate program. "They make a commitment to serve the poor and to live by the values that Mother d'Youville lived by."
Most Grey Nun associates fulfill their role by doing volunteer work in Edmonton's inner city, visiting the sick in their homes or ministering in parishes.
Close to 900 married lay women and men from around the world have become associates of the Sisters of Providence since 1984.
The 22 who live in Edmonton are nurses, social workers, teachers and housewives. Most of them are socially-conscious people who strive for solidarity with others, said Sister Josephine Mainka, who serves as liaison between the order and the associates.
"(Their goal as associates) is to deepen their spirituality and to follow in the footsteps of Christ and Emilie Gamelin (the order's founder) in serving their sisters and brothers."
John Lynch, a staff member with the Social Justice Commission, and his wife Mary became Providence associates five years ago.
"What reached out to us was the compassion and love that was present there in the community," said Lynch, who was educated by Providence Sisters and has had a life-long association with them.
"It was just the history and the charism of the sisters that led us to them. (Their charism) fit very closely with my own sense of social justice."
The Sisters of Assumption, a French-speaking teaching order, started its associate program in 1989 "because we know lay people are always looking for spirituality," said Sister Lucille Peloquin, president of the corporation. "Many have known us since high school. They have grasped our spirituality and want to live by it."
The order has six associates in Edmonton, two of them men. They are mostly retired lay people in their mid-sixties who are interested in Scripture.
Assumption associates make a commitment to live the spirituality of the order in their own lives, noted Peloquin. "They do it by loving their children and grandchildren with tenderness" and by getting involved in parish ministry. One is doing pastoral work at the Edmonton General Hospital; another, a retired truck driver, gives dancing lessons to elderly people.
The Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul (Kingston), who have had associates in Peru and Guatemala for years, started an associate group in Camrose in 1996. The group's six members, two men included, made their first commitment last September.
"I think they are looking for a deepening of their own spirituality and a way to follow Christ more closely," said group coordinator Sister Bernadine Bokenfohr.
"As associates, they'll carry on the charism of St. Vincent de Paul which is one of love, charity and simplicity. He was very dedicated to the poor."
Mary Tien and her husband Douglas, a chartered accountant, joined as associates following a close personal relationship with some of the sisters.
"We wanted to follow in the charism of the sisters," said Mary Tien, a "full time mom" who also tutors elementary students in language arts and math.
"I feel blessed to have been called (as an associate). It has added so much meaning to my life and gives me the strength to cope with the challenges of daily life."
The Montfort Sisters, also known as Daughters of Wisdom, recently began an associate program with eight candidates in Red Deer. They'll go through a three-year formation program before becoming full-fledged "Friends of Wisdom," noted Sister Harriet Hermary, the congregation's assistant superior.
Most group members are women in their forties who have known the sisters for years and want to help them spread the spirituality of St. Louis de Montfort, the order's founder.
The founder believed in achieving wisdom through devotion to Mary. The associates will eventually teach the spirituality of St. Louis de Montfort to new candidates and to the world, "so it doesn't get lost," Hermary said.
The Congregation of Notre Dame, a teaching order, started accepting associates in 1982 and today has 700 in Asia, Africa, Central and North America, including 18 in Alberta.
The associates are generally socially-conscious lay women who are "looking for spiritual support from like-minded people who have good religious ideas," said Sister Lillian MacIntyre, coordinator of the associate program.
Associates are expected to develop their prayer life, to attend the group's monthly meetings and to "be aware of the needs of the people around them," MacIntyre said. "(Ideally) they should get involved in social issues and respond to the needs of the community." Some of them are active with such groups as the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace and Ten Days for World Development.
The Sisters of Charity of Notre Dame d'Evron started their lay associate program in 1994 in response to lay people's request for spiritual support.
Today the order has 30 associates in Alberta and Manitoba, including prison ministers, doctors, teachers, moms and dads. "Their task is the events of their daily lives," said Sister Gloria Butler, the program coordinator.