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Abbot Peter NovokoskyChurchpersons of the Year

On Oct. 1 religious sisters in Saskatchewan were honoured for their contribution in education and health services in the province. A Sisters Legacy Monument was unveiled in Wascana Park in Regina (PM, Oct. 7).

The event honoured the more than 5,500 sisters from over 41 congregations who served in the province in the past 155 years. In the pioneer era of our province it was the sisters who established the first schools and hospitals, responding to requests from the newly arrived pioneers.

The first sisters to come to this province were the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, popularly known as the Grey Nuns. They opened a school in Ile-à-la-Crosse in 1860 and also ran an orphanage. They were followed by other groups, mainly from Europe. Their ranks were soon augmented by local women who were attracted to the charism and spirit of each community and who dedicated years of service, often with little financial remuneration.

While the Regina event honoured the sisters who pioneered the many services we now take for granted in the province, religious men of various congregations were also active both in the pioneer and building eras of the province.

The Jesuits, for instance, accompanied early explorers and fur traders in their travels through the western prairies. More permanent ministry was provided later by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. They came from France, first to Red River in 1841 and then in 1846 to Ile-à-la-Crosse in northern Saskatchewan.

During the settlement period in the west in the latter part of the 19th century, with the coming of the railroad and the opening up of agricultural land for homesteads, other religious congregations of priests and brothers arrived to serve the pastoral and educational needs of the new communities, according to the Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan. Later, other ministries were undertaken, including the publication of Catholic newspapers, magazines and catechetical materials, as well as the establishment of retreat houses and seminaries.

Congregations of religious men and women thrived and grew in the first half of the 20th century. Changed conditions and new social movements in the 1960s saw a drop in their numbers. Gradually, the religious communities involved more and more lay people in their apostolates and some services were taken over by the provincial government.

However, the memory and the legacy of the religious communities remains and continues to act as a leaven for the next generation.

In this year that Pope Francis has dedicated to men and women in the consecrated life, the Prairie Messenger honours religious men and women as the Canadian churchpersons of the year.