Kingston sisters renowned for service to the poor

The four Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul in the Edmonton Archdiocese are Sr. Bernadine Bokenfohr (top right), Jeannette Filthaut (upper left), Diane Brennen (lower right) and Rita Gleason (lower left).

WCR PHOTO | LASHA MORNINGSTAR

The four Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul in the Edmonton Archdiocese are Sr. Bernadine Bokenfohr (top right), Jeannette Filthaut (upper left), Diane Brennen (lower right) and Rita Gleason (lower left).

April 6, 2015
LASHA MORNINGSTAR
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

April is a time for major decisions for the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul. The sisters are gathering at their motherhouse in Kingston and, given their aging membership, discerning the order's future.

"In our pre-chapter meeting, we had a lot of hope," said Sister Jeannette Filthaut. "We know we live our mission fully. We are rewriting and simplifying our mission statement. . . . We are an aging community as are many in Canada and the United States, but we are still very viable and still very alive."

One of four Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul (Kingston) sisters based in the Edmonton Archdiocese, Filthaut's voice was strong. She said she and several others have been called to seek leadership positions in the order.

There are 69 sisters, with an average age of 80, left in the order. At their peak, there were more than 300.

Their mission has always been to work with and educate the poor – the homeless, the elderly, orphans and prisoners.

These women of faith took their healing and educational gifts to North, Central and South America, establishing missions in Guatemala and for a short time in Africa.

"Life got very difficult in Guatemala even though the sisters wanted to stay," said Filthaut, so they were called back to Canada.

The congregation still has an active mission in Peru. Every year, a bake sale is held in Camrose, and the money is sent to the Peruvian community.

The order also has lay associates, men and women who believe in the Sisters of Providence's work. The associates run projects in the community to support the sisters' efforts.

"It's an alternative form in carrying on the mission," explained Filthaut.

The associates will meet at the same time as the sisters in Kingston to discern their future.

Woven into the order's social justice and healing work is a profound commitment to the ecology of the planet.

The Sisters of Providence, along with Carol and Robert Mouck, opened the Heritage Seed Sanctuary in 1999 on the sisters' property in the middle of Kingston. Filthaut helped start the project.

Their stated purpose is to preserve open-pollinated seed so it may be saved, and to grow, harvest, sort and store seed as organically as possible. They also have workshops, weed walks, celebrate seasonal changes such the equinox and solstices, network with community groups and offer an internship to a young person interested in seed saving and sustainability.

The origins of this order go back to 1861 when four sisters came to Kingston from Montreal.

The first Providence sister to come West – dubbed by her order "our western pioneer" – was Sister Mary Angel Guardian. She ventured out to Daysland in 1908 and established the area's first hospital.

Consecrated Life

In the beginning, she lived in the hospital. But a separate building was constructed and she went on to orchestrate the building of hospitals in Moose Jaw, Camrose and St. Joseph's Hospital in Edmonton.

Sixty-five women from Alberta joined the Sisters of Providence, 27 stayed and seven are still alive today.

The Sisters of Providence's contributions to the province have been many and are ongoing.

They taught in 13 Edmonton schools, two in Camrose, ran St. Mary's orphanage until it was taken over by the Salesians, took over Rosary Hall – a refuge for women – from the CWL in 1915 and ran it until it closed in 2012, looked after the elderly in Athabasca, and ran the hospital in Camrose, eventually turning it over to Covenant Health.

They continue to provide spiritual guidance to members of the community.

MULTIPLE MINISTRIES

The present four members of the Edmonton community are involved in several ministries.

Sister Rita Gleason worked in a variety of ministries, "But no matter where I went, even the five years in Guatemala, there was always music."

When she first came west she found herself attracted to the people in the continuing care homes.

One day, Gleason went into Rivercrest Care Centre in Fort Saskatchewan. She walked into the common room where all the residents were sitting in total silence, "just sitting there with their heads down."

Gleason saw a piano in the middle of the room, walked over and started playing lively old time music. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the people starting to tap their toes to the tunes. Even the bird in the cage started singing.

"The whole place came alive," said Gleason, her eyes sparkling at the memory.

MUSIC FILLS THE SOUL

When she was discerning her ministry, Gleason wondered about music until her spiritual director said to her, "What would the world be like without music?"

Saying music inspires the soul and has a spiritual dimension, Gleason added, "It fills my spirit. When I am playing, I am in union with God."

Gleason takes her musical talent to a variety of places, including memorial services at St. Joseph's Auxiliary Hospital.

Filthaut is a retired school teacher, spiritual director, ESL teacher and process facilitator. Last year she gave retreats in Albuquerque, N.M., and Kingston. Currently, she is at work on retreats for the Camrose associates and secular Franciscans in Pickardville.

Filthaut also sits on a variety of committees, saying, "Somehow I seem to get involved in things. There are no dull days."

Following the order's dedication to ecology and as one of the founders of Heritage Seed Sanctuary, Filthaut created CDs to be used as teaching tools on ecology – two of them on saving seeds – and has given copies to school chaplains.

They are accessible on YouTube and the Sisters of Providence website.

IMMIGRANT WOMEN

Sister Diane Brennen works with Changing Together, helping immigrant women get their financial houses in order and teaching ESL.

Sister Bernadine Bokenfohr provides pastoral care at St. Mary's Hospital in Camrose and works with the community's lay associates there.

The sisters went on to explain that young women interested in their work do not have to join a religious community to follow their passion.

They gave examples of joining Greenpeace for those interested in ecology and becoming a school chaplain for young women wanting to take the word of God to children.

Confident of the order's future, Filthaut pointed out, "Our call is to meet the needs of our time."