navigating the shifts

Religious women have played a key role in the Yukon from the days of the Gold Rush. Early on the Sisters of St. Ann, at the urging of Father William Judge SJ, came to Dawson City.

Religious women have played a key role in the Yukon from the days of the Gold Rush.

Early on the Sisters of St. Ann, at the urging of Father William Judge SJ, came to Dawson City. They helped staff his hospital. In 1899 they opened their school there, St. Mary’s. It would play a key role preventing the Yukon being absorbed by British Columbia in a cost-cutting deal the federal government wanted to cut with our neighbour back in the 1930s.

Remember the Sisters of Providence, Sisters of Mission Service or Ursulines of Jesus? Before government health care or schools, religious women helped fill the gap. If families were not able to look after their own in the 1900s, who cared for the indigent or the elderly and provided other necessary community services? The selfless labour of the good sisters and that of religious workers from other denominations laid the foundation for the social service and educational systems we enjoy now.

The Daughters of Providence, Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul (Halifax), the women of the Congregation de Notre Dame and the Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception all served here. They pioneered the independent roles professional women play in society today.

The options they opened, though, have helped accelerate their own decline. The U.S.-based National Religious Vocation Conference charted a fall from a peak of 180,000 nuns there in the mid-1960s to an estimated 59,000 in a 2009 study. The great majority remaining now are over 60 years old. The trend is the same in Canada and other Western countries.

Pushing societal boundaries, though, now as then has other costs as well. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious just held its annual meeting last week in St. Louis, Missouri. It has nearly 1,500 members who are the elected leaders of their religious orders in the United States, representing approximately 57,000 Catholic sisters. The conference states on its website that it “develops leadership, promotes collaboration within church and society, and serves as a voice for systemic change.”

However that collaboration has proven problematic. In April a report of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the body charged by the Vatican with doctrinal oversight, came down hard on the conference. The Congregation inherited the mantel of the body popularly known as the Roman Inquisition which was created in 1542 to spearhead the Counter-Reformation. Its report questioned the LCWR’s fidelity to some church teachings, accusing the nuns’ group of “serious doctrinal problems.”

The Franciscan Sister, Pat Farrell, in her presidential address to the assembly said, it is not “the first time that a form of religious life has collided with the institutional church nor will it be the last.” She noted that some “foundresses and founders of our congregations” who pushed the boundaries in their days were silenced or even excommunicated by a church that would later canonize them, as in the cases of Mary Ward and Mary McKillop.

Sister Farrell noted that “Many institutions, traditions, and structures seem to be withering. Why? I believe the philosophical underpinnings of the way we’ve organized reality no longer hold. The human family is not served by individualism, patriarchy, a scarcity mentality, or competition. The world is outgrowing the dualistic constructs of superior/inferior, win/lose, good/bad, and domination/submission. Breaking through in their place are equality, communion, collaboration, synchronicity, expansiveness, abundance, wholeness, mutuality, intuitive knowing, and love.”

In a National Post comment last week Christopher Nardi wrote, “The female members of the Church have already understood that the gift of religious teaching and service is oblivious to sex. All eyes are on the college of bishops now.”

The Missionary Sisters of Christ the King, Sisters of Service and other nuns who served in the Yukon are gone and only a few sisters remain among us like Sisters Edith Elder and Karen Schneider of the Koinonia Community. Their spirit remains, though, to help us through contemplation and action, to navigate the needed shifts towards the just, sustainable world we all pray for.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact