Laughter, unity drew women to Sisters of St. Joseph

Local members of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada include Srs. Sheila Fortune, left, Kitty Stafford, Anne Rajotte and Amelia Belohorec (seated).

WCR PHOTO | THANDIWE KONGUAVI

Local members of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada include Srs. Sheila Fortune, left, Kitty Stafford, Anne Rajotte and Amelia Belohorec (seated).

November 23, 2015
THANDIWE KONGUAVI
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Looking back on her school days in Wainwright, Sister Anne Rajotte remembers hearing the Sisters of St. Joseph, laughing - while she was practising piano.

She remembers thinking how happy they were. However, it was not the continued joyous spirit of the sisters that eventually drew Rajotte to enter the religious congregation, but a persistent call from God.

"I think somehow from early on, I felt I was supposed to belong to God," said Rajotte. She is one of six Edmonton-based members of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada.

Originally called the Daughters of St. Joseph, they were always seen as young, full of life and more free, said Sister Sheila Fortune.

"They were very good to each other and they had fun together; they even had picnics in the cemetery," said Fortune. "That was really important for me, that they cared for each other and they were happy. I think they were happy with who they were as Sisters of St Joseph and that's going to spill out in all their relationships."

Founded by six women and Jesuit priest Jean-Pierre Médaille in 1648 in Le Puy-en-Velay, France, the sisters were inspired by Jesus' invitation to love God and to love one's neighbour. Unity and reconciliation of neighbour with neighbour and neighbour with God, is one of the charisms, or spiritual gifts, of the order.

Their mission, then and now, was to respond to the needs of the world - especially those of the poor and marginalized - with gentleness, peace and joy.

During the time of the French Revolution, persecution of the Church in France forced the congregation to disband. Some were guillotined, some imprisoned and some went into hiding.

When the order was re-established after the revolution, many orphans, poor, sick and widows had needs waiting to be met.

MEET THE NEEDS

According to Médaille's vision, the sisters divided the neighbourhoods and went out in pairs to discover the people's needs. The sisters then did their best to meet these needs and also found lay people to do good works with them.

"I think to this day we still are faithful to that," said Fortune. "It's that same spirit of recognizing Christ in the poor that's very deep in us, wanting to be out there and being a support for people who have less than other people."

The Sisters of St. Joseph arrived in Canada from Philadelphia in 1851, at the request of Bishop Armand de Charbonnel, to run a Toronto orphanage during a typhus and cholera epidemic.

Their ministry expanded to include education, health care and social services as the sisters spread to other cities in Ontario, including Hamilton, London, Peterborough, Pembroke and Sault Ste. Marie.

CAME WEST

Responding to an invitation from Archbishop Henry Joseph O'Leary of Edmonton, seven sisters of the congregation in London came west in 1922. The sisters shared their mission with the people of Sacred Heart Parish in Edmonton and taught hundreds of students at Sacred Heart School.

The sisters opened hospitals, including the first hospital in Killam, taught in schools across the region, and opened shelters for women released from prison and the Alberta Mental Hospital. They also established a house for troubled teens, and a home for women and their children making the transition from prostitution to mainstream life.

The Sisters of St. Joseph also ministered in parishes, prison ministry, l'Arche, and with Development and Peace, as well as teaching English to new Canadians.

Missionary work for the sisters has included living with the Innu on the north coast of Labrador, teaching in Canada's Arctic and throughout Latin America, including mission work in Peru, Brazil and Guatemala. They also responded to the AIDS crisis in Africa.

The sisters live an apostolic life of contemplation and being present to the needs of the world, said Rajotte.

"It's that idea of being present, faithful and ready to respond," she said. "We have a great sense of God's presence with us as we journey."

In 2012, the Sisters of St. Joseph of London, Pembroke, Peterborough and Hamilton amalgamated to become the Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada.

SIMILAR CHARISM

"Even though we all have a little different history, there's so many things that are the same because we respond to the same kinds of needs," said Fortune. "We have lots of things we share in common: We all love the congregation, the ministries and spirituality."

Today, the congregation has more than 200 members across Canada, mostly in Ontario.

The Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada also have a growing number of associates, or companions, who are lay members, who pray and carry on the mission of the congregation in their own lives.