Sisters from N.B. endured hard times to serve Albertans

A photo of the first Sisters of the Immaculate Conception who came to Edmonton in 1924 was part of the exhibit at the sisters' recent celebration marking 90 years in Alberta.

PHOTO SUPPLIED

A photo of the first Sisters of the Immaculate Conception who came to Edmonton in 1924 was part of the exhibit at the sisters' recent celebration marking 90 years in Alberta.

December 29, 2014
LASHA MORNINGSTAR
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

A simple cabin in Radway. That was the introduction of the Sisters of Charity of Immaculate Conception to health care in Alberta in 1926. Named St. Joseph's Hospital, it served both as a hospital and home for the sisters.

Water was drawn from a well for surgeries, and bedding was washed and hung out to dry even in the brutal winter. Cost per bed was 50 cents to $2 a day.

Two years later, a 20-bed hospital opened.

The religious congregation first came to Alberta two years earlier in 1924 to assume operation of a school in Edmonton. Education and health care were its main ministries during those early days in the province, apostolates that expanded into numerous other areas over the past 90 years.

The order has come a long way from its formation in 1854. A cholera epidemic in New Brunswick raged fiercely through the ships bringing the Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine to Canada, leaving flocks of orphans. The sisters were established to care for the children.

The first English-speaking congregation founded in Canada, the sisters have gone on to teach in schools in seven provinces as well as taking their mission to Peru and northern Canada.

It was not only teaching that they brought to this new country. They also established five hospitals in Saskatchewan, Alberta, New Brunswick and British Columbia.

The wave of Vatican II washed over them and their work in Peru was expanded, and they established eight missions in that South American country.

This is not to say they forgot Canada. Indeed, they took their ministry to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, the Northwest Territories, northern Saskatchewan, Quebec, Manitoba, Yukon, British Columbia and Alberta.

The sisters too realized the need for their own education and many entered university to earn degrees in education and nursing and other fields.

At its peak in the 1960s, the order numbered 400. But the lure of the outside world meant scant applicants and the sisters aged and their numbers now are unsure, but dropping.

FOUR REMAIN

Sitting in a side room at Edmonton's St. Andrew's Centre on a Sunday afternoon just before the centre's annual Christmas dinner, with the only four members of the order in the archdiocese, one is staggered by the calmness and acceptance of their diminishing situation.

This is the first in a series of articles profiling religious congregations currently serving in the Edmonton Archdiocese.

This is the first in a series of articles profiling religious congregations currently serving in the Edmonton Archdiocese.

Each of the remaining four has their specific job. Sister Anne Collins is delegated to on call ministry, Sister Elaine Henigman Christian meditation prayer, Sister Gertrude Mulholland freelances doing retreats and presentations, and Sister Ada Toner's ministry is one of presence.

Her job title of present is a stopper. What does that mean?

"If someone needs to talk I will be present for them."

She's 96 and has been with the order 78 years plus.

WHY JOIN?

Intrigued, one cannot help but ask why she became a sister.

"I was out working in an Irish settlement. It was the first time I had ever been out with young people because my mother died when I was young."

Ada was having a fine old time and attracting a good deal of male attention.

"I was out picking berries and I was trying to decide which guy I was going to spend the rest of my life with," she says with unabashed directness.

"And the face of Jesus appeared in a cloud and he said 'Come.' And I said 'No. What would I do? I have no education. I have no money. I have nothing. What would I do?' And he just smiled and said 'Come.'"

She lived in Johnville, N.B. She decided to follow Jesus and took her exams and entered the Sisters of Charity. "I didn't know it was possible," she said, still with surprise. "I got my teacher's certificate and I was sent west."

Sr. Ada Toner

Sr. Ada Toner

She went on to get her bachelor of arts and education degrees and taught school in many places including Edmonton Catholic Schools. Her next assignment was to Nova Scotia in the Annapolis Valley. Then back to Fort Saskatchewan, this time as a pastoral assistant.

Three summers were spent on Indian reserves in B.C.

"Where I was called, I went."

PARISH WORK

Then it was back into parish work until "I became too old and too deaf," she said with a directness softened with a smile. "The last 12 years I have been the ministry of presence."

The other nuns explain that she can be called upon to "be present" at any time – a phone call, even just walking down the mall. It's the call of God. She could be in the street, in the coffee shop, getting her hair done, anywhere. If someone needs to talk to her, have someone listen to their concerns, Sister Ada is present. She listens.

'YOU JUST KNOW'

Each of the other sisters has their own story of their call to become a sister. But the common thread seems to be – in fact it is said out loud by two them – "You just know. You just have that feeling."

Dinner was ready and the conversation had to end. Still one had to ask again if they were not worried about their diminishing numbers.

Almost in unison, they replied. "It's up to God."