Celebrating 100 years of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada/Pembroke site

Throughout 2021 we are sharing the amazing story of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada/Pembroke site as we celebrate 100 years of our service and witness to the Diocese of Pembroke and beyond. As we tell our story, we would like to express our gratitude, love and prayers to so many of you who have been with us on this journey.  Our Congregation is witness to the love and support you have bestowed on our community and we will be forever grateful for these gifts. We would like to say a heartfelt thank you and invite you to read our story in the months ahead as a way of celebrating this important milestone with us. This is the fifth instalment in a 12-part series.

By Sister Pauline Colterman

This month’s account of our congregational’s 100-year history takes us outside the Pembroke Diocese and into a new and exciting adventure for the Sisters of St. Joseph.

This story begins after Pope John XXXIII appealed to all Religious to share in the apostolate of the Latin-American countries. The Sisters of St. Joseph were listening and many were inspired by this challenge and requested the congregation undertake a foreign mission. This wish was realized in 1964 when the Oblates of Mary Immaculate indicated their desire to have our Sisters of St. Joseph collaborate with them in their apostolic endeavours in Chincha Alta, Peru. As the Sisters were always attentive and committed to the needs of the church and society they felt this calling was opportune.

There was much excitement and enthusiasm as preparations began for the departure of the first two Sisters, Sister Mary Emma and Sister Hedwig. These courageous Sisters boarded a cargo ship in New York on April 17, 1964 and sailed toward the unknown, accompanied by a lay volunteer, Kevin Blacquiere. Their baggage consisted of four trunks and 24 crates packed with medical and surgical supplies for the proposed clinic. After more than two weeks at sea they finally arrived at Callao Port in Peru.

When the Sisters arrived at their new mission in Chincha Alta, they found the people of the parish had prepared a three-bedroom apartment up over the building that was to become the first of two clinics.

The Sisters undertook many new adventures in those first few months. Studying the Spanish language was first and foremost on their list. With this skill they could easily communicate with their community and minister effectively. Equally important for the Sisters was an urgency to become acquainted with the Peruvian people and their culture. Simultaneously they needed to unpack the 24 crates of medical supplies they brought from Canada. Once they had everything in place and they felt comfortable enough with the Spanish language, they opened the first medical clinic in Chincha Alta.

Sister Mary Emma and Sister Hedwig were both nurses and under their direction two Health Clinics were opened in Peru, one in Chincha Alta (San Martin) and one in Chincha Baja (Dr. Tom Dooley).

The Sisters were quick to discover their long religious habits weren’t practical in the hot and humid weather of Peru. At first they weren’t quite sure what was causing their bodies to be covered in welts and after speaking with the locals, they realized their long skirts attracted fleas as they walked the sandy streets to visit the homes. They had to find a temporary remedy while they worked at designing a more acceptable dress wear. Their innovation to wear dog flea collars around their ankles may have started the fashionable trend to wear ankle bracelets!

Later in 1964 on September 19th three more Sisters embarked on the two-week journey at sea accompanied by two Oblate priests. Sisters Callista (Nora Kelly), Edana (Teresa Rice), and Christina (Maria Mousseau) followed the call to Peru as teachers and their cargo consisted of trunks and crates filled with school supplies.

As the Sisters before them, Sisters Maria, Teresa and Nora spent the first couple of months in Lima studying Spanish. The program was extremely intense, leaving them with very little time to prepare a school curriculum for the children. The determined Sisters opened the doors of the first parish school on April 1, 1965 in the Ica Diocese for 52 students. Today this same school, located in San Jose, has an enrollment of over 900 students.

Sister Nora Kelly tells about her first day in the classroom. Apparently when the morning recess bell rang, she and Sr. Maria met in the hallway and exclaimed to one another that they had already taught everything they had prepared and really didn’t know what to do with the children for the rest of the day. Sr. Maria was both teacher and principal and so they went to her office, sat down and they both had a good cry. They then went back to the classroom very unprepared but found the strength and creativity to entertain the little ones until the parents arrived to pick them up.

Through their work in the clinic and in the school, the Sisters came to recognize the reality of the Chincha families. There were a large number of indigent families, broken homes, deserted wives, widows and orphans and thus they recognized the need for a ‘Caritas Centre’ where the Sisters would organize the distribution of food and clothing to the needy families.

Clinica San Martin, opened on November 2, 1964 in Chincha Alta, Peru, was administered by the Sisters of St. Joseph from Pembroke

In 1967, after three years of living in the small apartment up over the clinic, the congregation decided to build a convent on a vacant lot next door to the parish. This convent has been the welcoming place for retreat programs, marriage encounters and many other events. Most importantly it has been a home away from home for many Canadian visitors, giving them an opportunity to become immersed in the Peruvian way of life.

Today, this mission continues to respond to the needs of the Peruvian people through the great initiatives of two Chincha women, Sister María Choquez and Sister Gloria Muchypiña. These Sisters chose to enter the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada and continue, to this day, to carry on the work of the Peruvian Mission.

From 1965 to 2005 many Sisters of St. Joseph gave years of service to this mission. They include Sisters Sylvia Smith, Constance Lacroix, Nicole Aubé, Elizabeth Berrigan, Josephine Hass, Pauline Coulterman, Mabel St. Louis and Marie Celine Janisse. There were several others who went for short trial periods of time and they include Sisters Margaret Blake and Bonnie Bryson.

I personally lived and worked in Peru for 23 years and today I continue to work for our Peru mission as promoter. This includes information sharing and fund-raising in Renfrew County and outlying areas. The generosity of each and every benefactor allows our Sisters in Peru to continue this ministry. Each year I invite Canadian volunteers to join me during my annual visit to Peru for a two-week experience. (currently on hold because of COVID).

 These trips provide the Canadian visitor with an excellent opportunity to…

  •  relate to the Peruvian people and their culture
  •  visit historical sites and shrines within the city of Lima
  •  witness poverty-stricken areas
  •  tour the mountain regions of Cuzco and Machu Picchu

Sisters Gloria and Maria work with many groups in Our Lady of Fatima Parish, Chincha Alta, Peru with the following:

  • Assisting with the training of the leaders for the 58 Basic Christian Communities
  • Helping with developing educational and spiritual programs for adults, youth and children.
  • Attending to the sacramental programs introduced by our earlier Sisters.
  • Overseeing the distribution of Canadian funds that are sent in support of projects in the Chincha Valley.

We have supporters from Arnprior, Renfrew, Eganville, Barry’s Bay, Pembroke, Petawawa, Deep River, Chalk River, Mattawa and throughout the Madawaska Valley to name only a few. Many families and organizations choose tosupport our Scholarship Program, whereby the Canadian sponsor pays for a Peruvian child’s studies for one year at a cost of $250.

I normally travel to Peru in February to attend to these children as the Peruvian school year begins the first of March. Last year there were close to 300 children from Chincha receiving their education thanks to the generous financial support from Renfrew County.

In addition to supporting education and health care other Canadian-sponsored projects have included several water projects. When the 2007 earthquake destroyed nearly all water pipelines of the Chincha area, our Canadian friends and benefactors financially helped in the repair of pipelines and in some cases establishing new water lines in areas that had none. Hygiene and health projects were also urgently needed. Again, monies donated from the Renfrew County area were used in the building of bathrooms inside people’s homes to get away from using the back yard as a toilet. Once an inside washroom was built, people had indoor showers, which was a true pleasure for these families. 

In March 2017 a mud slide destroyed the homes of 26 families in one of the rural communities of Chincha. Our congregation gave a large donation to attend to the needs of these families who lost not only their home, but their crops and farm animals. This donation gave new hope to these families. They were supplied with fruit trees, plants and seeds for their fields. They also received chickens, ducks, pigs and Guinea pigs for their farms and immediate household items were also purchased such as beds, mattresses, pots and pans and dishes, etc.

In 1990 the first Seniors Home in Chincha was opened and the Sisters of St. Joseph were asked to take on its administration. The Sisters, with the helping hands of some of their Associates, rose to the challenge. Presently there is a missionary order of Korean Sisters attending to the home with some financial help from Canada.

The year 2020 was a very difficult year for our Sisters working in Chincha. The COVID-19 virus impacted the country in mid-March and it continues to ravage every area with no end in sight. There has been a complete lock-down since March 15, 2020. Sr. Gloria dresses in overalls, mask and shield to venture out once every 15 days to do the banking, pay bills and do the grocery shopping.

Throughout the pandemic the Sisters in Peru have their door bell and telephone constantly ringing as desperate people look to them for consolation and support during these trying times.

Sister Gloria, Sister Pauline Coulterman and Sister Maria are shown on the grounds at Chincha Alta, Peru. Sister Pauline has lived and worked in Peru for 23 years.

Peru, with a population of 33 million, has reported more than 50,000 COVID-19 deaths, though the real number is believed to be much higher because of difficulties in confirming the cause of many fatalities. The reported statistics of deaths in Peru is a result of those going into the hospital and being tested. Many families choose not to take their sick to the hospital because it is like a death sentence during this time of the pandemic.

With the help of donations, the Sisters have been able to purchase food supplies and hygiene products to prepare packages for the sick and shut-ins. The greatest task is getting them distributed as they have to depend on runners to get them into the homes of the sick. Those that are desperate come to the house and the Sisters put on their shield before talking to them through the screen door and they ask them to wait on the other side of the road while they make up the package and put it outside.

Donations are always in need. More information can be obtained through our Congregational Web site… www.csjcanada.org or by contacting myself, Sr. Pauline, at pcoulterman@yahoo.com or 613 732-1306.

Author’s Note: In the last publication where we outlined our educational ministry we inadvertently missed a few locations where our Sisters taught, including Mount St. Patrick and St. Joseph’s, Allumette Island.  

Additionally, at the invitation of Fr. Louis Casartelli, we also taught at Madawaska, Whitney, Bancroft and Maynooth.