By Associates Mary Josey and Grace McGuire
Change always includes a period of transition marked by decisions to either move forward or hold on to what is. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Pembroke have been through significant changes leading up to and beyond their 2012 decision to amalgamate with three other communities in the federation to form the Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada.
Two associates of the Pembroke sisters recently interviewed them to learn how they have made the transition forward, as they mark 100 years in the Diocese of Pembroke and beyond. We learned that although faced with challenges, the sisters have done this like they always do everything, trusting in the love of God guiding them every step of the way. In their humble and faith-filled way the sisters revealed that they didn’t know at the time how much this 2012 decision would aid them with the changes ahead. As the sisters reflected on thoughts and feelings about the sale of their Motherhouse they shared how the coming together of the four neighbourhoods effectively prepared them for the ‘letting go’ of their Motherhouse and the looming pandemic.
As a result, their lifestyle and approach to being in community was drastically altered. The initial move of seeing some elder sisters being taken to various places such as Peterborough, London, Barry’s Bay, and Ottawa was a difficult task. It was also a great difficulty for the sisters who were moving because the Motherhouse was where they entered and as one sister worded it, “To leave was a sore on my heart!” They were welcomed with open arms and excellent care in their new residences. Saying goodbye to these courageous women was experienced as a great loss. After these first sisters moved, there were only nine sisters living in the building.
The sisters already living in their own apartments in Pembroke grieved the fact that they could no longer live their practice of going regularly to the Motherhouse to work, attend mass, share meals, minister to sisters and others in need and gather with the associates for retreats and celebratory events. Others were preparing to make the move across town to Supples Landing, a private seniors’ residence, which has proved to be a positive experience in many ways. These sisters expressed joy in having a beautiful view of the Ottawa River, a walking path, a garden, a quiet space for a chapel, and one of the sisters indicated how reassuring it is to be living on Joseph Street. Most important to them is being able to continue to live their mission of helping the ‘dear neighbour.’ They all agreed there are many opportunities to minister to the other residents.
A significant part of the sisters’ transition was being fully able to participate in the letting go of the Motherhouse, a two-year process, which was definitely marked by the struggle in the beginning. Because, as one sister said, “It was the place we entered, got our training, made our vows, and had fun together. It was a place to come home to from far off and nearby missions.” They talked and prayed and said goodbye to each section of the structure that had been their home and held such fond memories.
As they ritualized the process, they were enabled to slowly but certainly let go. As one sister declared, when I was able to ask myself the following questions, “What is the essence of my life? Is the building the most important thing?” it became clear to her there was no poverty for nine sisters to be living in such a huge building. Another sister expressed it this way, “I’ll follow my God and God will do it for me!”
Shortly after the move to Supples the sisters were dealt ‘a hard blow’ with the sudden, tragic and accidental death of Sr. Betty Berrigan. Having retired as director of Stillpoint House of Prayer, Betty was looking forward to the next step on her journey as she contemplated continuing her work in ministering to the residents of Supples. Little did anyone know that journey would be home to her eternal reward. Betty was a best friend to everyone, widely known, respected and loved far beyond the Pembroke congregation and is fondly remembered by the sisters, associates, family and all whose lives she touched.
Within days following this sudden shock, the sisters were confronted with the Corona Virus pandemic and an immediate lockdown, which meant they were confined to their apartments for several weeks. This also meant the sisters living in town were prohibited from visiting those in residence and such restrictions compounded the grief all were dealing with and inhibited the transition they were going through.
This crisis added to the quandary about how the sisters would come together to experience community. All the sisters remained open to ‘the new’ and finding creative ways to carry on and so they decided to take the opportunity to meet by Zoom. This was a new experience for most. One sister remarked, “The virtual experience has been enriching.” And another sister thought it was a good way to get together but not personal.
The pandemic changed them as it did most of us. The sisters had to depend on the goodness of family, friends and neighbours. As restrictions lessened, they found ways to get together for celebrations such a jubilees, marking the years of their religious lives, and their 100th anniversary. They came to the realization they had to move on. They were being ‘stirred up’ to be open to what is present and live in the here and now. For some of the sisters their mission and ways of ministering to others became telephone ministry as the way to reach out, because as one sister stated, “People still need to talk!” Some joined committees and one even got a kitten to relieve the isolation of being confined. With their new reality there was more time for reflection, prayer, reading and eventually renewed opportunity to visit shut-ins and bring them communion.
All the sisters expressed how grateful they are that they can still fulfill their mission and ministries. They feel fortunate for the richness of their spiritual lives, their good health and Eucharist. As a result of the amalgamation, administrative details are taken care of and the sisters appreciate they can still have the intimacy of being a small group within a larger community which supports them financially, prayerfully and morally.
As a closing ritual the sisters held a noteworthy ceremony. Each sister was asked to bring something that was dear to them, wrapped up, to be placed on a table. As part of this final act, each sister was invited to pick one of the wrapped items to keep and take with them to treasure as a reminder of the love that went into the giving and receiving of the gift.
From our interview experience, we have firsthand evidence of how much these sisters cherish each other. They have gone through many changes and losses over the past several years with remarkable humility, strength and abiding faith that continues to draw them together in ‘oneness.’ It is obvious they are indeed ordinary women living extraordinary lives!