Leslieville Lives; Stories from the ‘Ville – The Sisters of Life
Meet the Sisters of Life. From left to right: Sr. Marita, Sr. Marie Veritas, Sr. John Mary, Sr. Josephine Rose, Sr. Maria Kateri and Sr. Claudia Marie (not in featured photo). Many of you have seen them around Leslieville; walking, rollerblading, skateboarding, cycling, on the streetcars and occasionally….juggling! Their friendly and visually captivating presence in Leslieville has brought a smile to many of us for years now. When I asked Sr. Maria Kateri, during my visit, why they wear their habits during these outings, she replied, “Well, it’s that or PJs!” You can add ‘good sense of humour’ to their welcoming ways.
I first met with the Sisters at their Centre on Danforth Ave. a few weeks back. Although the Catholic Church and its traditions are not unfamiliar to me -I was raised a Catholic and spent my first year of high school at St. Joseph’s Morrow Park convent on Bayview Ave. – I admit I was a bit ‘nervous’. It had been a while since I was in such close proximity to the church – and nuns – but these Sisters are not the ones I remember from my youth. They’re much more contemporary, and relatable, having lived lives outside before entering the convent. They were very gracious, offering me tea, to stay for lunch, even inviting me to midday prayer. I went. Surprisingly, I could remember all the words to the Hail Mary and Our Father. The frozen ghost had been resurrected! The midday prayer is a daily ritual for the sisters and much of their day is spent in prayer/meditation or with those in need; their prime focus. There’s very little ‘down time’. The Sisters of Life is a very active order (it took 4 months to meet with them). Their primary work is providing pregnant women and new mothers with emotional and practical support. While I was visiting, they were preparing for a birthday party for a 2 year old whose mother had come to the Sisters for help while pregnant. “We have a non-abandonment policy’ said Sr. John Mary, who is the Superior of the Toronto mission. If women need us before/during/after their child is born, we are there for them.
The Sisters of Life is a Catholic religious order that started many years ago in the USA, by Cardinal John O’Connor Archbishop of New York. He was a forceful opponent of capital punishment, human trafficking, and unjust war. In 1991 O’Connor was determined to establish a religious order dedicated to serving the unborn and dying. He put a “Help Wanted: Sisters of Life” ad in the Catholic New York newspaper in which he invited Catholic women of higher education to consider answering the call to religious life. On June 1, 1991, eight women joined the order. On March 25, 2004, they were formally established as a religious institute. The Sisters of Life mission in Toronto is the only one in Canada.
While being a Sister is a commitment to God for life, the Sisters are not as ‘cloistered’ as you might imagine. Many of them came into the order after university and living secular lives.
Sr. John Mary was brought up a Catholic, but the calling didn’t come until she had finished her studies in history and politics at Queen’s, then a Master’s degree at Western. She worked for the U of T Press before heading to New York to work for the Holy See at the United Nations. She first encountered the Sisters of Life while living and working in New York, and then returned to Toronto to work for a small consulting firm. “I was searching for something else. I had everything that the world seemed to offer, but started to witness the degradation of modern life; violence, drugs, homelessness, prostitution. I felt I needed meaning. How society treats its weakest is a measure of its character. A good place to see this was in New York City. I left when the feeling was overwhelming. That day came in 2002 when I went to World Youth Day at Downsview Park and saw Pope John Paul II. I had a ‘wow’ moment. He moved me from a place of fear to freedom. I was 26.”
“Do you just come to the convent? How does it all work”, I asked Sr. John Mary. “No no. You can’t just ‘sign up’ “, she smiles. “You are responding to a call from God. There is a process of prayer and discernment during which young women would visit our community, make several retreats and be in contact with our Vocations Director.”
When I was chatting to Sr. Marie Veritas (the youngest of the Sisters) I asked how families react to the decision their daughters make to leave the secular life to do the work of God. “Well, some are not thrilled, and uncertain about the life. Until they come to visit. Then they see what we do, how we live and it changes their initial impression. It definitely takes time though. I was very young when I heard the ‘calling’. I think 6th grade. I dressed up as Mother Teresa on All Saints Day”, she smiles. I did finish school though. In fact, I finished my degree in Biology at the U of Alberta before joining the convent. I was 22.”
Sr. Claudia had worked for the TD Bank in marketing before joining in 2012. She’s the newest of the Toronto community to join the order and is, according to the stats, a ‘latecomer’. The average age women join the Sisters of Life is 25 years old. She was 32. She was just putting the icing on a mean looking cake while I was there. Clearly she has brought some additional skills with her.
Other Sisters (here and in NY) had established careers in less traditional areas; one of them was a fashion designer doing window displays for Ralph Lauren, another an engineer for NASA. Several others had been lawyers and doctors. Fascinating.
“It’s actually what we like, to be honest. We’ve experienced life so we are better equipped to help those who are finding theirs difficult. We can guide them towards tackling obstacles that can get in the way of them living their lives,” said Sr. John Mary.
Sr. Maria Kateri (named after St. Kateri Tekakwitha, a young native American woman who converted to Catholicism) is the Sister I’ve seen the most on the streets and lanes of Leslieville, but spoke to the least during my visit. She was busy preparing for the birthday party. For any of you that have met her, she’s the one with those sparkling blue eyes and infectious smile.
Many Sisters stopped wearing habits in the 1960s, preferring to blend into the communities rather than stand apart, so when I asked why, in these modern times, they choose to wear a habit, I was intrigued by the reply. “It’s a public witness and a sign of our identity. It’s radical and visual. It brings us to people’s attention. It’s a visual world these days so people notice us.” I couldn’t argue with that.
Not only do they bring themselves to our attention, they have a good time (and stay fit) doing it, as many of us have seen. I would’ve liked to have met Sr. Cecilia Rose, who left to return to the US a few years back. Apparently she juggles with fire!
I had so many questions for the Sisters when I visited them both at their Centre and their Convent. Why do you wear a wedding ring? Why do you wear habits? Where do you sleep? How do you get your names? How do you support yourselves? Do people see you as angels or saints? How do pregnant women find you? The responses got laughter at times. “No, we are not angels or saints”, laughed Sr. Marie Veritas. “We have the same spiritual battles as anyone. We wear rings to symbolize we are married to God. We live in what I’d describe as a ‘piece of heaven’. The cloister – it’s private and peaceful. Our rooms are ‘cells’, originating from the Latin word ‘cella’; private, to conceal. Habits are symbols that we are brides of Christ. We can submit three names to our Superior General prior to receiving the habit. They have to have a spiritual significance, not just be names we like. We are supported solely by donations from benefactors. Women find us through word of mouth. We also leave our brochures at various places around the city; shelters, doctor’s offices, and from previous women who have come to us. We also have a magazine called Imprint, which is has a wide distribution.”
So many questions, so little time. When they aren’t putting on kid’s parties or organizing a volunteer day to mail out invitations to their seminars and special evenings, or hosting guests or working out in the community, spending time in prayer or meditation, they are pretty much catching up on sleep.
It was a pleasure to spend time with them. I was also honoured, having been told that they get requests regularly for interviews and don’t always say yes. “We liked your persistence”, Sr. Maria Kateri laughed. While we were not always on the same page about various subject matter, the atmosphere was open and relaxed. And fun. There was a nice camaraderie among them. They are Sisters behaving like … sisters. A far cry from the more traditional, serious (and a bit scary) nuns from 1974.
For more information about the Sisters of Life, you can visit sistersoflife.org or contact them at 416-463-2722. More likely though, is that you will see them going somewhere – on foot, by bike or rollerblades.
Photo of Sr Cecilia juggling taken by Kareena Wilding
Photo of Sr Maria Kateri rounding the bend by Colin McConnell