Thursday, February 4, 2021

O Sister Where Art Thou?

Written by  Jim Nakoneshney

At a Mass this week consecrating the diocese to St Joseph, the Bishop made special note of those who’d chosen a consecrated life, particularly referencing the many Women Religious who have served the diocese over the decades. As he listed the many Religious Orders with deep roots in our communities, it became clear how many of them now existed only in the history books. 

It brought to mind an observation made by my daughters a few years ago. Despite a lifetime spent in Catholic schools and attending Catholic churches, neither of them recalled having encountered a Religious Sister in real life. To them, nuns existed solely in movies and on TV. When I’d first heard this I was taken aback, but upon reflection I’d realized that it had been some time since I’d had much exposure to them myself, aside from those few passing through the cathedral from time to time. 

For myself, growing up, it was somewhat different. Although I didn’t attend Catholic schools or have any experience of being taught by them, nuns were commonplace in popular culture in the ‘60’s and 70’s. I’d also had two favourite aunts who were Religious Sisters, along with a cousin and an in-law, so nuns were firmly ingrained in my mindset. One or both of my aunts would spend time with us most summers when I was a kid. It was always a highlight having them there, as they were both somewhat mischievous and adventurous. There was always a project under way when they were out, whether it was mushroom or berry picking, processing the large farm garden crops, or planning an upcoming event. I rarely recall seeing either of them sitting still. 

At the time that they’d entered religious life, the world was a different place. This would likely have been their only opportunity to get an education and see the world. One spent her life in nursing, the other in education with a raft of university degrees in her wake. Compared to life on a prairie farm in the ‘40’s, it would have likely appeared as a fairly exotic lifestyle option - not that this takes away from the desire to serve the needs of others. I’m sure it was also a hard and challenging life, but it was one that many young women chose in those years. 

Sprawling, sturdily-built convents once littered the landscape as the various orders scrambled to meet the needs of their communities. Decades later, as that lifestyle was appealing to fewer and fewer women, many of the large facilities had outgrown their useful life. Even many of the smaller houses have closed up in recent years as those sisters that remained grew older and smaller in number. Our church was the beneficiary of several pieces of artwork when the Sisters of St Elizabeth in Humboldt finally closed their doors in 2012. 

That’s not to say that all Religious Orders have ceased to exist. Certain ones in various cities are actually thriving, with many young and active members. Others are carrying on as best they can. Still, I suspect that we’ll never again be encountering bus-loads of Sisters on our daily excursions, as may have once been the case. And I think we’ll all be a little bit poorer by not sharing that experience. 

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