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Sister Mary Regis Nelson CSJ: 1916-2005

Sister Mary Regis Nelson CSJ, was known as a good evangelizer to the people whom she had served through the Via, Veritas, Vita, a program for training lay volunteers in the missions. Sr. Mary Regis, 89, passed away March 21.

Sr. Mary Regis and her sister, the late Sister Virginia Nelson, both Sisters of St. Joseph, founded the lay missionary program in the mid-70s. They felt that more communication was needed between the Canadian North and the South, so they launched the program to encourage Catholic students to spend time in the North as volunteers. This outreach program for native people became part of the Home Missions Program, sponsored by the Archdiocese of Toronto, Catholic Missions In Canada (then known as the Catholic Church Extension Society of Canada) and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto.

But for the sisters of her congregation, the diminutive sister was all this, and more.

"Sister Mary Regis helped me to walk again," says Sister Jean DeLuca CSJ, director of New Beginnings, a program that helps the widowed, the separated, and divorced through the grieving process. Sister Mary Regis was head of the physiotherapy department at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto where Sister Jean had been confined after a spinal fusion in the late '60s.

"She asked me, 'Do you want to walk?', which I thought was rather odd considering my condition," recalls Sr. Jean. "Her constant refrain was: 'You're going to walk, and I'm going to stick with you until you do.'" For two years, the feisty sister put her skill as a therapist to good use-in keeping Sr. Jean's spirit alive and healing her as well.

After studies and internship at St. Michael's Hospital, Sr. Mary Regis practised physiotherapy first at the Sisters' Motherhouse at Morrow Park and then at St. Joseph's Hospital in Toronto. She also practised gerontology at St. Joseph's Morrow Park.

In the 1984 she helped co-found the Via, Veritas, Vita (The Way, the Truth and the Life) program, and remained its moving force until it stopped its services in 1996. Once the program was launched, Sr. Mary Regis visited Toronto parishes, finding and training volunteers and making the program better known.

In its heyday, the program expanded so that the summer program was dropped, and adult volunteers who could spend longer periods at this ministry were recruited. The volunteers were called Joseph or Martha-Mary and, since they were evangelized, they went out to evangelize others. They gave at least one year of service that included doing the Works of Mercy, joining a prayer group on a reserve, and working on any activity connected with an outreach of love and reconciliation.

Another St. Joseph Sister, Sister Susan Davy, an addiction counselor, says her vocation was sparked by a two-week mission awareness visit she took with the Nelson sisters. At the time, Sr. Susan was working in a hotel.

"That summer of 1987 was a life-giving experience," says Sr. Susan. "It was the beginning of my awareness of a life beyond business." Working with children in one of the northern missions gave her exposure to mission life. Three years later, Sr. Susan would begin her own discernment journey.

When Via Veritas closed its program in 1996, Sr. Mary Regis continued to serve as a volunteer for Catholic Missions In Canada. A member of the Royal Canadian Air Force from 1943 - 1946, Sr. Mary Regis entered religious life on March 19, 1948.

By Patria C. Rivera
With files from Gisela Côté and the Sisters of St. Joseph Archives
Reprinted from Catholic Missions In Canada Magazine, Summer 2005

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