Presence, Memory, and Witness: The Sisters of St Joseph

What’s next for the Sisters of Saint Joseph?

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[Electric City/Faiths}

On a hill in what used to be a farmer’s field west of Peterborough, but which is now a quiet green space tucked away beside Monaghan Road, a community of women have been leading lives of prayer and service for over 125 years.

They’re the Sisters of Saint Joseph, a Catholic convent with a long history impacting Peterborough’s social services and religious life. There used to be hundreds of nuns here; they ran schools, hospitals, women’s shelters, orphanages, and other initiatives, and they’ve been one of the primary expressions of Catholic faith in the city.

Now, there are a few dozen Sisters living in Peterborough, and while women do still join from time to time, none of them are particularly young, which makes for an uncertain future. They are still active in the community as volunteers and advocates, but their capacity for service is limited compared to what it used to be. They may now be better understood as a community of witness and memory, one that has experienced a huge amount of change in its history.

Sister Mary Connelly has seen much of that change. She’s been a member of the convent since 1947, back when the Sisters still wore habits, for example. “We’ve progressed with the times,” Connelly reflects, saying that the Sisters stopped wearing habits after Vatican II, the Council that liberalized many forms of Catholic practice in the early 60s.

“Our ministries have become limited because of our age,” says Sister Connelly. “Now, our primary role is presence. Presence and volunteer work. Sometimes, people just need someone to talk to, and we offer that. We also pray. The Sisters get a lot of requests for prayer, mostly from people in Peterborough but also through the connections we have outside the city.”

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In 2009, the Sisters left Mount Saint Joseph, the Motherhouse they’d called home since 1895, and moved next door, to a smaller, custom-built facility that better suits their changing needs. Their old home is being transformed into a multi-purpose community hub: the Mount Community Centre will combine residential apartments with offices, kitchens, and other spaces for community groups; and the Sisters’ former gothic chapel, a grand, sweeping space you might not expect to find in Peterborough, is bookable for events.

“The old Mount has taken on a new life,” says Sister Connelly. “It was sad to leave, like it’s sad to leave anything. But we all saw the need. It was time to leave, but it was still sad.”

Thankfully, the Sisters are still right next door, which means they can participate in the new life of the Mount. It also means the new tenants can appreciate the history of the space they occupy, and the Peterborough community can still access the Sisters’ memories.

The Sisters of Saint Joseph offer a glimpse into an alternative history of women in Canada.

Those memories are important for all sorts of reasons, but a big one is that convents like the Sisters of Saint Joseph offer a glimpse into an alternative history of women in Canada. While it’s true that Catholic convents operate within a wider patriarchal structure that shouldn’t go uncriticized and needs reform, convents have also, perhaps paradoxically, provided spaces where women could exercise significant amounts of agency, especially in the early 20th century. For many women, convents were an appealing alternative to the restricted roles that were otherwise available to them. They were a space where women could control their affairs, pursue careers (mostly as teachers and nurses), and build communities of friendship amongst each other.

For Sister Connelly, some of her strongest memories are of those friendships. “We’ve had a lot of fun in our life,” she says with a smile. “There were lots of hard times but we lived through them and they were good in the end. We may not have had a lot of material things, but we certainly had one another.”

The convent has been at the centre of Sister Mary Connelly’s life for the last 70 years, but she has no illusions about the future of her community. “We’re going to die off, there’s no doubt about that,” she says.

Women’s religious communities face an uncertain future across the country.

And the Sisters of Saint Joseph aren’t the only ones; women’s religious communities (in the Christian tradition, at least) face an uncertain future across the country. The number of nuns in Canada has decreased steadily since it hit a high of 66,000 in the 1960s, with many historic convents having to shut their doors or relocate. But there is anecdotal evidence that suggests the number has begun to rise again, a trend that is reflected internationally as well. In England, for example, the number of nuns is currently at a 25-year high.

Sister Connelly, for one, believes that women’s religious communities will continue to be relevant, and find new ways of doing what the Sisters have done before them. “I don’t expect it in my lifetime,” she says, “but I expect there will be a whole different concept of religious life. I don’t know what it’s going to be; I can’t even imagine it, but I have a feeling it’s coming.”

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Will Pearson

Will Pearson

Will Pearson is a freelance journalist based in Peterborough, Ontario. He has written for a variety of local and national publications, and he is the host of the Peterborough Currents podcast.