What connects the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Pembroke Neighbourhood and the Visitandines, and how did this relationship evolve over the nine years we lived and shared together?

Here is the story in brief. It was 11 years ago this past June 29th when we, the Sisters of the Visitation left what we thought was paradise on earth, our beautiful monastery established since 1910. We set out with a number of possessions accumulated over the hundred years of existence in the Westboro neighbourhood of Ottawa. We didn’t look back when we merged onto the 417 that would lead our group of cloistered contemplative nuns to this unknown territory called Pembroke!

We were referred to the Sisters of St. Joseph by a Grey Sister of the Immaculate Conception. At a meeting on May 8th 2009, the Leadership of both communities realized a connection existed between their two religious families. The Sisters of St. Joseph’s founder, Fr. Jean-Pierre Médaille’s purpose was to have the Sisters take the place that the Sisters of the Visitation had just left; and that “since the people could not get along without the Visitation Sisters’ works of charity,” it was necessary to establish another Congregation in their place noting the Sisters of St. Joseph would humbly endeavour to make their Visitation Sistersoriginal spirit their own, and follow it as far as they are able! (Nepper, M. sj, 1973 Aux Origines des filles de St. Joseph, Toronto, p. 23).

Central to this spirit is a strong desire for personal holiness coupled with a generous fidelity to God’s will found principally in the duties and responsibilities of our state in life and in the practice of what St. Francis de Sales calls the “little virtues”: humility, gentleness, simplicity, joy and cordiality. Good balance, common sense, and prudence complete the virtues to which both our communities aspire.

It must be said also that the Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Annecy, France was founded in 1883. Already living in that region after the French revolution, the sisters came together in a section of the house called ‘La Galerie’ where St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal had originally founded the Order of the Sisters of the Visitation in 1610. To this day the Sisters of St. Joseph are the guardians of what has become a museum precious to both congregations.

While we were miles away from our shared Annecy foundations, our congregations’ spirits were intricately connected in history, purpose and mission. This is probably the key to our successful partnership.

We were 11 French speaking nuns, all born many years ago somewhere in the province of Québec, arriving in this predominantly English town on that June 29th, 2010. The nuns feared they would not be understood and that communication would be a challenge, but creative signing and laughter ensured a stress-free atmosphere for both parties. In a very short period of time each nun had adapted to her new environment with ease and each joyfully delved into her new way of life.

The most important element for our two communities was to become like family, comfortable in each other’s presence within our communal home, separate but together, sharing our religious lives within the same convent/monastery, respecting each other’s privacy and autonomy. We prayed that our presence would bring a power-house of prayer into our new home and town and allow us to be united in Spirit as we both strived to bring God’s Kingdom closer to earth.

During nine beautiful and carefree years we lived an idyllic life along this portion of the Ottawa River where we spent many hours contemplating the beauty of God’s creation surrounding us; the singing birds, the Canada geese by the hundreds if not thousands, bears, deer, fox, squirrels, chipmunks, seagulls, humans. You name it, we had it! Rather than chasing the geese away, we realized their behaviour could teach us valuable lessons on discipline, order and obedience, virtues that support us in our daily lives.

The Leadership team never hesitated in making us feel that their home was now our home and that their hearts were open to each one of us. Sister Ruth Wade was the perfect organizer, who with her magic numbering wand, identified and found a place for everyone and everything. Sister Constance Lacroix became our translator, interpreter, listener and enquirer. Sister helped the Visitandines find a French-speaking dentist, audiologist, optometrist, family doctor and chaplain. Each one was a gift from heaven and our gratitude goes out to them.

We would be amiss if staff was not mentioned in this story. Our life with the Sisters of St. Joseph was never one of an ‘institution’ but rather one of a beautiful close-knit family where its members shared the joys and pain as experienced within a happy family. With our many employees whom we didn’t consider employees but rather participants in this beautiful story, we were able to live fully the Gospel’s teaching of loving one another. They always gave their all, did their very best in supporting these French-speaking nuns. Did we learn English? not really; did they learn French? no, but in the end it didn’t really matter since with love and a twinkle in our eye, we understood each other.  

Sister Mary McGuire, the Team Leader, would have given us heaven and earth if possible. No request was refused, no challenge too big to not be met with an encouraging word or a smile. We organized and shared moments of communal prayer, funerals, baptisms, jubilees, spiritual retreats, celebrations of all kinds, playtime, and musical events and through it all, disasters such as fires, flooding, crumbling walls, leaking roofs, and many other challenges confronted with within an aging building. However, to the many who had lived and prayed within these walls, it was a sacred building. Together we worked and solved almost everything but the final blow, the sale of the Motherhouse, proved to be inevitable. We feel blessed and enriched to be part of this story and although we have left Pembroke, our prayer for this town and its people continues.

Submitted by –  Sister Catherine Toner, vsm