Friday, September 18, 2020
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Book Launch At St. Michael's

Two Sisters of St. Joseph, Sisters Ellen Leonard and Veronica O’Reilly, wrote essays for a newly released book by Novalis entitled Changing Habits: Women's Religious Orders in Canada. The University of St. Michael's Senate Forum Staff Fellowship Committee hosted a special Lunch and Learn on Dec. 3 to celebrate this release. Panellists included the editor and three of the essay writers, all of whom elaborated on their contribution to the book.

Elizabeth Smyth, Professor at OISE, Fellow of St Michael’s College, and Editor of the collection, led off the presentation by underlining the importance of the subject: the ways in which religious women over the past four centuries have been instrumental in shaping Canadian education, health care and social services. Dr Smyth’s expertise is in the history of education, particularly the role of religious women in education in Canada. Following the vision of their founders, she said, not only have the religious women been changed but they have helped to transform the world beyond the convent.       

Sr. Veronica O’Reilly CSJ, is an Honorary Fellow of St. Michael’s College and Executive Director of the Federation of Sisters of St. Joseph of Canada. She spoke of the power of story to harness the energy of our predecessors in religious life. She drew an analogy to the ‘Walk About’ practiced among aboriginal women of New Zealand who track the path of their ancestors in mythical dreamtime. The women sing and chant the story of what happened in each place as they walk through it. She spoke of major upheavals in congregations and her own view as an insider, a vowed religious and member of the congregation she describes.

Ellen Leonard CSJ, Professor of Theology at the University of St Michael’s College, as well as a Professor emerita, focused on women in theology and the transformations in both feminism and theology that had occurred between 1951 (when she entered) to 1980, through the impact of the Second Vatican Council. Theology changed, pastoral practice changed; there has been a shift to a larger lay enrolment in the study of theology. Over time, apostolic religious life continues to evolve.

Sioban Nelson, Professor, and Dean of the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Toronto, has studied the impact of the thousands of women worldwide who engaged in the practice of nursing. When the religious women from Europe moved to hostile, mostly Protestant milieu e.g. in the U.K., Canada, U.S.A., and Australia, they had to be open, and work closely with those already there. They had to prove themselves one person at a time – which they did. They had an impact on the practice of nursing and through both their personal example and their teaching in the nursing schools they established, they were responsible for the systemic development of health care in these countries. They proved to be incredibly entrepreneurial women. Dr. Nelson underlined the importance of the home community in all that these religious women did: they entered new territory and surprised themselves by what they accomplished. Their archives and letters home were the source of vicarious adventure for their community, family and friends at home.

It was the bonding with the home community that Dr. Nelson saw as the great difference between the work of the Sisters and that of individual lay women who themselves worked in or even established hospitals but lacked the lifelong support and mentoring of the religious community. She told the story of an Irish cab driver that said, “Some people think that they are dealing with simple religious women but really they have almost 2000 years of corporate memory behind them.” The broad infrastructure supporting the efforts of the Sisters gave their projects a lasting stability.

The appreciative audience explored the subject further through their questions to the panel members, and many bought copies of the book. The book is available through Novalis.


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