Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 6, 2002
The heart of God beats strong
Ursuline sisters do heaven's work here on earth
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Two centuries after emerging amidst the horrors of the French Revolution, the Ursulines of Jesus continues to bring life to parish communities in Edmonton and around the world.
“We are not dead yet, we are still on fire,” exclaimed enthusiastically Sister Connie Piska, who is planning the congregation’s bicentennial in Edmonton. “We are not living to die, we are dying to live.”
A Mass at St. Joseph’s Basilica on Monday May 27, will mark the congregation’s 200th anniversary. Archbishop Thomas Collins will preside at the service along with retired Archbishop Joseph MacNeil.
Catholics from across the archdiocese are invited to celebrate with the Ursulines of Jesus, who first came to the archdiocese in 1911 at the request of Bishop Emile Legal.
Since then they have served in schools and parishes in Edmonton, Heisler, Daysland, Killam and Sherwood Park.
Today there are 15 sisters in Alberta and three in British Columbia and in the words of Sister Beverly Spohn, the congregation’s regional leader, the Ursulines of Jesus “continue to be the hands, the feet, the eyes and the heart of a God of love in our world today.”
The Daughters of the Incarnate Word, as the Ursulines were first known, began as a dream in the heart of Father Louis-Marie Baudoin, a French priest. As the result of the French Revolution, Baudoin was exiled to Spain and at his return to France in 1797 was forced to hide in a cellar at the base of a small house to avoid arrest.
He regarded his time in the cellar as following Jesus into the desert and spent his days in prayer and meditation.
Through his contemplation he was overwhelmed by the love of God as shown through the Incarnation. The words of John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” touched him deeply. From that time on all that Baudoin said and did in his life was inspired by these words.
Among those Baudoin met in the hidden cellar was Charlotte Gabrielle Ranfray, a hospitalier sister, an order disbanded by the revolution. They shared the dream and between them grew a desire to begin the same adventure.
By 1800 restrictions on the Church were lifted and the priest was able to leave the cellar and travel to LaJonchere to take charge of 11 parishes. He asked Ranfray, known as Sister Benoit, to join him there to take charge of catechizing girls.
She said yes and on July 2, 1802, she and four other women joined Baudoin in Chavagnes-en-Paillers, a small village in the province of Vendee. There they took up teaching in an old rickety house consisting of one room with an attic and a lean-to kitchen.
Animated with a spirit of adoration and reparation, they dedicated themselves entirely to the Lord’s service by educating girls, caring for the sick poor and sharing in pastoral ministry.
From these humble beginnings the Ursulines of Jesus have grown into a worldwide order with about 750 sisters scattered throughout the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Spain, Italy, Cameroon, Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia and Canada.
Since their arrival in Edmonton 91 years ago, the Ursulines have served in more than 20 Catholic schools, including schools in Edmonton, Sherwood Park, Heisler, Daysland, Stony Plain and Spruce Grove.
“We were amongst the first sisters who pioneered the Edmonton Catholic School system,” noted Piska. They began at St. Edmund’s School, expanded to St. Anthony’s in 1917 and went to Mount Carmel shortly after. Over the years, the sisters served in 12 Catholic schools in Edmonton and five in Sherwood Park. They were also associated with the parishes in each school.
The Ursulines of Jesus “continue to be the hands, the feet, the eyes and the heart of a God of love in our world today.”
- Sister Beverly Spohn
After the Second Vatican Council, the Ursulines began to slowly move into parish ministry, taking on areas such as sacramental preparation, Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, counselling and even administration in several parishes, including Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Sherwood Park, St. Agnes, St. Edmund’s, St. John the Evangelist, St. Angela’s, Good Shepherd and Our Lady of Guadalupe. They also did pastoral work in Killam.
In addition to pastoral work, the sisters also got involved in inner city ministry, music ministry, pastoral care of the sick and dying, teaching English as a second language and private tutoring.
And today, despite their small numbers and aging membership, the Ursulines are still present in many of these ministries as well as in several parishes in Edmonton and in the Prince George Diocese.
“We never retire,” said Piska, an Ursuline for 52 years. She did pastoral work for 25 years and now is providing pastoral care to the sick at Dickinsfield Extendicare.
“This shows that although we are a small group, we have been very involved in the Edmonton Archdiocese,” said Spohn, who after many years of teaching and pastoral work is now involved in a city-wide social justice coalition. “We are present wherever there is a need.”
Like many other congregations, the Ursulines are struggling with vocations. They have a hard time remembering the last time they had a novice. It was six or seven years ago, Piska suddenly remembers. But there is hope for, as Piska and Spohn put it, “there seems a renewed interest in religious life today.”
An expression of that interest is the fact that for the past year the Ursulines have had a group of several women who meet regularly at their regional house to discern their call in life.