What would the Catholic Church in Canada look like if there were no more religious sisters?
Perhaps the more important question would be, what would Canada look like? My guess: much less compassionate, less socially just, with weaker ecological leadership — and the church would have much more difficulty being taken seriously in advocacy on any important public concern.
I was never formally educated by sisters, but have worked to help a congregation establish a social justice office, and today I continue to collaborate with many sisters in advocacy ministry. My experience, and Canadian history, suggests that religious women have always been hands-on, well ahead of most of the clergy and laity in the service of charity and, certainly since Vatican II, the public promotion of beneficial society and ecclesial change.
But, in late 2015 there were a little less than 16,000 religious in Canada (compared to just over 18,000 four years previously). They were unevenly distributed: 68 per cent lived in Quebec, but only eight per cent in all the western provinces. Eighty per cent of religious were female, and 80 per cent francophone. More worrisome, perhaps, is the fact that only one per cent of members of religious orders were under 40 years of age, yet 50 per cent were over 80!
I pondered this situation this summer as I opened the pages of Our Story, a history written by, and about, Our Lady’s Missionaries.
The OLMs were formed in 1949 because there was no congregation to serve the so-called “foreign missions” of the time. Rev. Dan MacDonald of the Diocese of Alexandria, Ont., received permission from Rome to recruit women for this work under the guidance of several Sisters of St. Joseph from Toronto. The Catholic Women’s League offered financial support for formation of the women in their first five years.
Our Story tells some lovely anecdotes of the rather austere novitiate of the first OLMs. There were only nails upon which to hang their clothes. The postulants had to crack open the ice on their washbasin each winter morning. The first candidates told the story of walking down to visit their aging founder, who offered them cigarettes, chocolate bars and peanuts! Apparently Father Dan was thinking that, “if they were to be missionaries, their lives would be very difficult and smoking would be a comfort to them.”
In 1956 four sisters who had just trained as nurses attended mass when there and then they heard the bishop announce that they were going to be missioned to Japan None of these women had ever been on a plane before, yet off they went. Over the years, OLMs served in over a dozen countries on all continents. Their stories have been regularly told in the pages of the Scarboro Missions magazine, as they developed strong working relationships in many countries where these fine Canadian missionary priests also served.
In my last year of high school I participated in a Catholic Youth Corps summer exchange in Mexico. OLM Sister Frances Arbour had worked three years in that country and organized the program on the ground for us. Later, as the director of the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America, Frances led the solidarity work of the region.
Whether it is Sister Elaine MacInnes (an Officer of the Order of Canada) teaching Zen meditation to prisoners, Susan Moran initiating the Out of the Cold program for the homeless, Mary Gauthier mobilizing people against the Energy East pipeline, Clarice Garvey accompanying the landless peasants in Brazil, or Monica Gebel advocating for ecological justice, the OLM women remain an inspiration. Would that our church knew more about — and more faithfully imitated and celebrated — their total life-giving service to the preferential option for the poor.
In 2006 the Canadian Churches’ Forum for Global Ministry granted the OLMs an award “for living the grace of mission in a particularly significant way.”
Sister Joan Chittister asserts that the question for religious communities today is, “What have you questioned lately, and who knows it? For whom have you spoken lately, and who knows it? For what have you as a community stood for lately, and who knows it?”
Our Story answers these good questions. We might also ask ourselves, our parishes and our dioceses.
Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.