Srs. Patricia Kaliciak and Gertrude Sopracolle are members of the Ursuline Sisters of Prelate.

WCR PHOTO | THANDIWE KONGUAVI

Srs. Patricia Kaliciak and Gertrude Sopracolle are members of the Ursuline Sisters of Prelate.

June 15, 2015
THANDIWE KONGUAVI
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Sister Gertrude Sopracolle happened to be alone in her St. Albert condo when she learned Pope Francis had announced 2015 would be a year to honour those in consecrated life.

The Ursuline, one of 50 in her religious order in Alberta and Saskatchewan whose average age is about 85, could not control herself. She admits she burst out laughing.

"God has such a sense of humour," said Sopracolle. "When most of the traditional groups that have built up Canada and North America are phasing out, along comes a pope that makes it the Year of Consecrated Life."

The Ursuline Sisters of Prelate, Sask., are widely known for their work in education. Father Ron Rolheiser, who was educated by Ursuline nuns, called the Ursulines of Prelate "gifted teachers and educators."

But the Company of St. Ursula, named after a legendary fourth-century British virgin princess and martyr, was not founded by St. Angela Merici to be educators, said Sopracolle.

Drawn together as "spouses of Christ" by Merici in Brescia, Italy in 1535, the first Ursulines lived in their own homes, praying, advising and supporting themselves, with no common life or activity to pursue in the world, she said. They made no public vows, did not live in a convent and wore the clothes of their time.

When Merici died in 1540, the archbishop of Milan became aware of her group who had until then worked independently of clergy. Within five years he had altered the rules of the Ursulines and had the women wear habits and become teachers living in cloisters.

CONTROLLING WOMEN

"That happened to every other community that tried to do something with the people that wasn't congregated or cloistered," said Sopracolle. "It was a clerical way of controlling women."

Consecrated Life

Patricia Kaliciak, 53, the youngest sister of the Ursulines of Prelate, would never have survived that, she said.

Growing up in southern Saskatchewan, Kaliciak went to public school but was drawn to the Ursulines because of their work with young people after meeting them through the Catholic youth program Search for Christian Maturity.

"I'm very independent to start with," said Kaliciak. "One of my friends told me it was an oxymoron that I joined a community and it's kind of true. I'm still very independent but I liked what I saw with the Ursulines."

By the time Kaliciak made her first vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in 1988, the Ursulines of Prelate had long expanded their ministry outside the classroom. Founded in 1926, the autonomous Ursulines of Prelate originally came to the southwestern Saskatchewan village by an invitation from Oblate Father Joseph Riedinger, from Cologne, Germany.

They appeared in Provost in 1958 and Edmonton in 1971, where they are now represented in the archdiocese by Kaliciak and Sopracolle.

Since their arrival, the Ursulines have played a variety of roles in the archdiocese in addition to teaching in Catholic schools, including pastoral care, occupational therapy at St. Joseph's Hospital, and teaching ESL for immigrants.

Education remains a big factor in the order but has come to be identified by the Ursulines as "education for life," Sopracolle said – a vision that entails instilling the values of Christ and the Gospel, the traditions of the Church and especially the contemplative actions of the congregation.

SIMPLE LIVING

The Ursulines' mandate of living simply and attentively to the Holy Spirit and generously in community but not necessarily under one roof, is a spiritually-led evolution back to the original rule of the foundress, said Sopracolle.

"Educating for life can happen wherever you are," she said.

"(Education for life) came to be what a person felt called to do and there was a need and the two met," added Kaliciak. "The need and the person's gift met so then you went, with the blessing of the superior and the community."

Kaliciak, who was the principal at the Ursuline-run St. Angela's Academy in Prelate until she fell ill in 2005, moved to Edmonton permanently after undergoing a life-saving double lung transplant in 2007. She continues to volunteer wherever opportunities present themselves and whenever she is able.

"It's about being present to people in a busy world, to listen," she said.

FAITH, HOPE, ENTHUSIASM

Despite their age, as a group the Ursulines still look ahead with faith, hope and enthusiasm, she said.

The charism of St. Angela will always live on, said Kaliciak, as characterized by one of her favourite quotes: "Do something, get moving, be confident, risk new things, stick with it, get on your knees and be ready for big surprises."

"That's kind of her spirit, that's kind of what we're about," said Kaliciak. Despite the declining numbers of her order, she believes that spirit will continue in some form.

Sopracolle is also optimistic the legacy of the Ursulines will live on.

"We're really like embers dying out. But you can blow on the embers and they go back into flame."