Providence guided women down dusty roads to heart's goal

Sr. Mary Phillips will make her temporary vows as a Sister of Providence on April 26.


Sr. Mary Phillips will make her temporary vows as a Sister of Providence on April 26.

April 20, 2015

It has been a long journey with many side roads for Sister Mary Phillips to reach her destination with the Sisters of Providence of Montreal.

From her beginnings in Newfoundland, Phillips, 53, has gone through a marriage and divorce, raised two sons and worked with Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity before she found her home with the Sisters of Providence.

Even so, her heart yearns to return to work in overseas missions.

Phillips will profess her temporary vows in Edmonton April 26.

The seeds that nourished her vocational journey were planted in her childhood. Born in Bonavista, NL, the second of four children, she was raised in a single parent home by her mother Catherine and maternal grandparents.

The home was imbued with faith, with daily Mass and praying the rosary after supper. Their home was so welcoming the priests would wander down the hill from their residence, knock on the family's door and ask "Any food for the beggar?"

The townsfolk numbered 5,500, and the poor were plentiful.

At 17, Phillips was housekeeper for the summer at Father Patrick Power's home. It was there that Phillips' heart was opened to the missions. The two would lunch together and the priest would tell Phillips about his work in Vietnam.

"I'd say to him 'Tell me another story about the missions,'" remembered Phillips. "I was hungry for the stories and they have stayed with me."

Phillips took some classes at Memorial University where she devoured Christian ethics. She upgraded her high school program in Saskatoon as her Newfoundland program only went as far as Grade 11.

The lure of mission work stayed in her heart. But another life-changing event diverted her from what she felt was her life's goal. She was helping at RCIA classes at Saskatoon's Holy Spirit Parish when she met Karl. They married when she was 21 and they had two sons ndash; John-Otto and Karl Jr.

They moved to a Jesuit farm community near Guelph, Ont., and her husband earned his master's in philosophy. The family moved again, this time to Calgary in 1982. Karl Sr. went to Toronto to take his master's in law and joined a law firm.

It was then when the couple separated and later divorced.

Both sons took philosophy at the University of Saskatchewan. Karl Jr. went on to study medicine and is doing a residency in Calgary; John-Otto graduated from law school.


During this time, their mother worked in nursing homes, and her strong desire to serve the poor returned.

Once her marriage annulment was finalized, she realized her heart-felt wish to work in the missions. After getting a six-month leave from the nursing home, Phillips went to Kolkata, India, to work with the Missionaries of Charity.

In Kolkata, the volunteers would go to the streets with backpacks of food, clothing and first aid supplies, tending to people's needs as they found them.

One of the most poignant parts of their work was to go to the train station platform, a place where people would bring the dying. The volunteers would carry these people to Mother Teresa's hospice.

"In the evening when we would go back, we could go and see how they were doing," said Phillips. "It was an amazing experience."

She also enjoyed the evening meal when all of the volunteers would share the events of their day.

The circle of daily Mass, adoration and working together, brought Phillips to the realization that she wanted to live the religious life and serve God with others.

Finally she was on the path she wanted to walk so many years earlier. When she returned to Calgary, she spent time discerning ndash; "lots of time in prayer" ndash; and talking to family and friends.


"God led me to the Sisters of Providence. Their heart is with the poor." Three years ago, she decided to go and live with the sisters.

Founded in Montreal in 1843, the Sisters of Providence number around 500 now and serve the needs of the poor, sick and marginalized in Canada, Haiti, Philippines, United States, Chile, Egypt, El Salvador, Argentina and Cameroon.

Phillips began her vocation journey, attending weekend retreats and come-and-see events. "I felt a great sense of welcoming," she said.


Working with everyone from the people coming to the food bank to the infirm sisters in their nursing home, Philips came to realize there "really are different kinds of poor. There was so much loss ndash; all they gave up to get where they are now."

April 26, the day she makes her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, is Good Shepherd Sunday and World Day of Prayer for Vocations.

What do her sons think of their mother's life path?

"They told me 'This is your time to do what you need to do,'" said Phillips.

As a new sister, she will work at becoming grounded in the order's charism and mission.

Yes, she has told the order's hierarchy of her desire to work in the missions. She smiled as she said she was told "In time."