Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 24, 2003
Sr. Farmer gave herself to God
Sisters of Charity of Halifax general superior led her community with grace, integrity
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
As general superior of the Sisters of Charity of Halifax, Sister Irene Farmer will be best remembered as the person who led her community of more than 1,600 members into a new life consonant with the world of contemporary women.
On a more personal level, this Edmontonian will be remembered as a woman of integrity who gave herself totally to the Lord. Farmer died Oct. 19 in Halifax. She was 90.
"What struck me about Irene was her unshakeable attachment to the Lord, from which she derived her capacity to let go whatever was not important and to concentrate on the real issues to be faced," her friend, Father Paul Molinari, wrote in the foreword of Farmer's 1997 biography Rebel, Reformer, Religious Extraordinaire. "She was a woman of integrity, a no nonsense person, with a powerful drive and a sincerity of response."
Sr. Annata remembers
Sister Annata Brockman, a Sister of Charity of Halifax and pastoral associate at St. Joseph's Basilica in Edmonton, described Farmer in similar terms. "She was a wonderful person because she gave herself totally to God and to God's work," she said. "She was very, very dedicated."
Sister Clement Mary of Edmonton did her novitiate with Farmer and has fond memories of her friend. "She was not afraid to stand up for women's rights, even when she was in Rome."
If Farmer thought a sister wasn't doing the right thing, "she would come and tell you right to your face," recalled Sister Clement. "If you confided in her, she would not broadcast it through the community. She was a great woman, a woman ahead of her time."
In her early years growing up in Alberta, Farmer witnessed western feminists making significant strides towards women's liberation. Inspired by their single-minded spirit, she defined the Sister of Charity as one commanding respect for women's rights in the Church and in the world.
"Neither the word 'feminist' not 'suffragette' was part of my vocabulary while I was growing up, but the essence of feminism, the struggle to achieve equal rights with men has always been part of the very fabric of my life," Farmer says in her autobiography.
"As I advanced from the rank of private sister to that of administrator I had to deal with male clergy who often considered women religious women inferior to them. I wanted to do away with that discrimination."
Born in Edmonton in 1913, Farmer attended Alex Taylor School, Sacred Heart School and St. Mary's High School. At age 16, she was introduced to Sister Frances de Chantal, a Sister of Charity of Halifax and principal of the commercial department of St. Mary's High School. For the next eight years, de Chantal would be her spiritual leader.
Her friendship with de Chantal and other Edmonton girls who seemed happy as Sisters of Charity convinced Farmer that this congregation was the best suited to her spiritual needs.
She was 24 when she left Edmonton by train for Halifax. In June 1937, Farmer was received into the congregation as a postulant and six months later she began her novitiate. On Aug. 15, 1946 Farmer took her perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Immediately she was appointed local superior of Immaculate Conception Convent in Kelowna. Five years later she was appointed superior at Mount St. Vincent College, the only Canadian college solely dedicated to the education of women. In 1956, Farmer was elected secretary general of the Sisters of Charity of Halifax. In 1962, she was elected mother general, a position she held for the next 10 years.
As mother general, Farmer oversaw the changing of the status of Mount St. Vincent College to a university in 1966, created provinces and vice-provinces within the congregation and founded the first foreign mission in Peru. The issues of finances, the effects of the Second Vatican Council and changes to community life were significant during her two terms as mother superior.
"As general superior she sought to ensure that the particular gifts of the individual sisters could flourish and contribute to the good of the congregation and the Church," noted Father Ken Keeler in his funeral homily Oct. 22 at the congregation's motherhouse in Halifax. "In addition, she strove . . . for a more equitable treatment of women in the Catholic Church and in society at large."
In 1972, at age 59, Farmer presided over her last general chapter. At the end of her term, Archbishop James Hayes handed her the medal for diocesan merit.
In 1974 Farmer founded the Seton House of Prayer in Summerland, B.C., and spent the next 10 years as its spiritual director. She was involved in a major car accident in 1977 which affected her health for the rest of her life.
Move to Westlock
In 1984, Farmer moved to Westlock to Immaculata Hospital, which was operated by her congregation. There she became involved in the parish council and the liturgy committee of St. Mary's Parish. In addition, she led retreats on the congregation's constitution for sisters across Canada.
Farmer's 50th anniversary as a Sister of Charity was celebrated in Westlock in 1990.
Four years later, she moved back to the motherhouse in Halifax and worked there as archivist and researched the lives of 19th and 20th century sisters.
A memorial service for Farmer was held in Edmonton Oct. 28.