Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 7, 2000
Women in hte missions
Our Lady's Missionaries have witnessed to the Gospel for 50 years
By LELLA BLUMER
Special to the WCR
More than 50 years ago, a retired priest from the town of Alexandria, Ont., set to work on his lifelong dream - the formation of a community of women from Canada dedicated to missionary work outside the country.
One year before his death in 1957 at the age of 89, Msgr. D.R. Macdonald, remembered as "Father Dan" by the members of Our Lady's Missionaries, saw his dream come to life.
"It happened because Father Dan was a man of tremendous faith," says Sister Mary Gauthier, a member of the OLM leadership team.
"Nothing stopped him. He travelled across Canada by train, from Newfoundland to Vancouver, well into his eighties, selling Christmas cards to support us and getting the help of the CWL everywhere."
After receiving permission from Rome in 1949, and the financial support of the national Catholic Women's League, Macdonald enlisted the support of two Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto, who provided formation to the first postulants.
Seven years later, in 1956, the first four missionaries set out for Japan. Five more left the following year for Nigeria.
Today 30 members of Our Lady's Missionaries serve in missions in the Philippines, Nigeria, Brazil, Guyana and England.
Although the order now operates out of Toronto, Gauthier says support for the community is still strong in its native diocese of Cornwall-Alexandria. In fact, the community gathered in Alexandria to celebrate its 50th anniversary in May 1999.
And while they remain true to Macdonald's dedication to serving in foreign countries, Gauthier says the focus today is not so much on conversion as on "being with people who are marginalized, living with them and helping them."
"Father Dan felt we had an obligation to people in other countries, and his motto was 'Freely we have received; freely let us give.'
"We are about living the Gospel values of love, forgiveness, justice and peace, in harmony with all of creation."
How that mission is carried out in each country differs, Gauthier adds. In the Philippines, the sisters began serving in parishes directed by the Scarboro Fathers in the mid-1960s.
Today they continue their work with the imprisoned, and in health and pastoral ministries, but they are also involved in land reform and ecology, together with other religious groups and organizations.
In Nigeria, OLM sisters focus on health education, primarily among women.
Women are educated and trained about primary health care, and medicines, and then pass their knowledge on to others.
Responding to the plight of oppressed and landless peasants in Brazil, OLM moved from its work in urban health care centres into rural areas during the 1970s. Their experience with the first base Christian communities which were forming around the countryside, often secretly, had a profound effect on the sisters.
In the March 1999 edition of the Scarboro Missions magazine, Sister Mae Janet MacDonell writes about her experiences at that time.
"As part of a small but very committed emerging Church, we too became transformed. The Gospel took on new and deeper meaning where faith and practice became a day-to-day challenge, often shaking the foundations of our unquestioned structures and perceptions. It was a mutual evangelization in defence of a life of dignity for all."
As a result of providing shelter and a meeting place for landless farmers to gather, two sisters were expelled from the town of Mulungu, and moving back to the city of Fortaleza, they continue to minister to street children and the poor.
Meanwhile, in a program that has gained international attention, prisoners throughout the United Kingdom are taught Zen meditation skills which allow them to transform their prison cells into places of prayer. The program is directed by OLM Sister Elaine MacInnes.
And in Toronto, the Out of the Cold program begun in 1987 by Sister Susan Moran to help homeless people who came knocking on the OLM convent door, now involves 45 faith communities in the Toronto area.
It was Macdonald's dream that the community serve other countries, which explains why OLM is better known in its mission countries than it is at home, Gauthier says. But she admits their lack of visibility in Canada is a concern.
"We are known in small ways, and we welcome women to join us in this missionary challenge, but we need to know how to be visible."
Right now, three women are in junior formation in the Philippines. But in Canada, where the order has never operated a hospital, school or institution, "it makes it difficult," Gauthier says.
At the same time, the order's extensive work in other countries is a tribute to its members' strength, she adds, pointing out that two OLM sisters currently in Brazil are original members of the group formed in 1949. "They are 78 years old, and still going strong."