Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 27, 2006
Sister practises the ministry of presence
Christ's face in a berry patch beckoned her to follow him
By RAMON GONZALEZ
"there is nothing that you can't do or become with God's help and good hard work."
- Sr. Ada Toner
Brown works at Tim Horton's and whenever she can, she stops by the parish office to deliver one of Toner's favourite drinks - French vanilla coffee.
Just after one walks into the parish office, they see a room called the Sister Ada Toner Library. It is filled with books and educational material on everything from RCIA to catechetics.
Toner said the library was named after her because she built it during her time as pastoral assistant with the idea of "passing on to lay people the ability to carry on the work that I was doing.
"I got permission from my community to use gift money to buy books and materials because you can't tell someone to go ahead and do something without giving them the tools."
She now takes care of the library and updates the materials.
Born in Grand Falls, N.B., March 19, 1918, Toner's mother died when she was 14 months old. Older relatives of her mom raised her. She moved out at age 17 without a cent in her pocket, one change of clothes and a Grade 6 education.
"So I went out to work for $2 a week doing housework, working on a farm in New Brunswick," she recalled.
At age 18, she felt called to religious life but didn't respond because she felt she didn't have enough education to be a nun. She also received four marriage proposals that year from men looking for a healthy, happy farmer's wife.
As she was thinking about "which one would I want to spend the rest of my life with," something happened that did change Toner's life.
"I was picking berries and I saw the face of Christ," she recalled. "He was smiling and he said 'Come.' And I said 'No. What would I do in a convent?'"
But the smiling Jesus insisted and compelled her to go.
"So I spoke to the priest about it and he said, 'I told them (the sisters) already that you were going down there in the fall,'" she laughed.
She realized her call was genuine the moment she joined the congregation in September 1936. "I knew the minute that I walked in that door that that's where I belonged. It was just if I had been wrapped in a warm blanket."
Soon, Toner was sent to study and was told to write her matriculation exam the following year. To her surprise, she passed it and completed her Grade 12.
In her second year with the congregation, Toner earned a first class teaching certificate and kindergarten certificate and was sent to Vancouver to teach in the Catholic school system.
"We had nothing; we had to beg for food," she recalled. "The only money that came to the convent at that time was $10 a month for seven of us. We received no (teacher) salary then. We were supposed to be supported by the parish in which we worked in those days."
Eventually Toner was teaching a class of 60 children, Grades 7, 8 and 9, in another part of the city. After 18 years in Vancouver, she taught in Saint John, N.B., and then in Winnipeg. After she completed her bachelor of education in administration, Toner came to Edmonton as principal of St. Gerard School in 1968. She served at St. Gerard until her retirement in 1978.
But her retirement from teaching didn't mean retirement from service. After reinventing herself during a retreat in Pecos, N.M., she became a pastoral assistant with her first assignment at the then-new parish of St. John Bosco in northeast Edmonton.
"It (entering the convent) was just if I had been wrapped in a warm blanket."
- Sr. Ada Toner
A year later, Toner was back in the Maritimes running a renewal centre in Fredericton for the Saint John Diocese. Four years later she was in Nova Scotia serving as coordinator of catechetics for the Annapolis Valley.
She became pastoral assistant at Fort Saskatchewan in 1984, looking after most of the parish programs, including the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, Confirmation, First Communion and Reconciliation.
"Father Floyd, the pastor, was a person who enabled me to do things that I never thought I could do, like giving homilies or doing lay-led liturgies in places where there was no priest," Toner recalled. "Whenever he went away, he would just leave me in charge of the parish."
Over the years, Toner also served as pastoral assistant in Edson, Wainwright, Thorsby and Vancouver. After a short period in Vancouver working in nursing homes, she asked to return to Fort Saskatchewan.
Toner doesn't plan to retire anytime soon. "I'm busy all the time; I don't have time for retirement," she laughs.
How does she do it? "I eat properly and I get to bed at a decent time. I go to bed at 10 and I am up at 6 a.m."
Apart from walking, she doesn't exercise. "I don't have time for that," she said, laughing loudly. "I do take care of myself but I don't overdo it."
She uses the mornings to write her memoirs.
"The reason I'm doing that is I want people to know, especially my own nieces and nephews and grandnieces and grandnephews and anyone, that there is nothing that you can't do or become with God's help and good hard work," she said. "There is nothing you can't become. (After all) we are made in the image of God."
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