Profuse praise for their legacy of educational pioneering and compassionate healing
By Laureen McMahon
The B.C. Catholic
VANCOUVER--Over more than eight decades, many classes of students were educated and a great number of the sick were treated with devoted compassion by the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception. Their contributions to education and health care in B.C. are legendary, said Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB.
Five Sisters of Charity: Therese Kergoat, Marion MacDonald, Ruth Monahan, Margaret Vickers, and Carmel Stancato, will soon return to their community's headquarters in Saint John, N.B. Some will live in retirement, while others will take up new duties.
At a Sept. 27 Mass and farewell on the feast of St. Vincent de Paul, Archbishop Miller profusely praised the role the five have played in the life of the Church in Vancouver.
"Sisters Marion, Ruth, Therese, Margaret, and Carmel, we shall miss you enormously among us. Your presence here in our church has been a blessing for the thousands of people whose lives you have touched with healing hands, prayerful hearts, and joyful smiles.
"How grateful we all are to Almighty God that you have been here for so many years, have shared yourselves with us, and inspired us by your commitment to the poor, the marginalized, the uneducated, the poor, and the sick."
Fortunately, he added, four sisters remain: Sisters Anne Wanner, Maureen Fowler, Monica Guest, and Celine Hurley.
SCICs first ventured west of the Rocky Mountains in 1929 at the request of Vancouver Coadjutor Archbishop William Mark Duke, who was seeking to staff Catholic schools.
"He turned to the Sisters of Charity," said Archbishop Miller, "because his home was Saint John and his sister, Sister Mary Camillus, was in the order and he admired their teaching and nursing expertise."
The first sisters opened Sacred Heart School and worked with the Catholic Children's Aid Society to establish Our Lady of Mercy Home for unwed mothers. They established St. John's Boys' Home in Burnaby and Guardian Angels School and went to Powell River to nurse the sick and teach kindergarten classes and Christian education.
Archbishop Duke asked the sisters to open a hospital, so they searched for a site and settled on land at 33rd Avenue and Heather Street, then far outside the city.
Their $11,500 offer was accepted by the owner, Canadian Pacific Railway, and St. Vincent's Hospital opened in 1939 under the administration of Sister Ruth Ross, a nurse who had earned a certificate in hospital administration at Providence Hospital in Seattle.
By 1940 the sisters had joined staff at St. Anthony's and St. Francis of Assisi Schools. When St. Anthony's closed, they taught at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Surrey and at Marian High School. Some went to serve in Hope.
The sisters expanded the number of beds and services at St. Vincent's Hospital. In 1976 they took over an existing extended-care facility which they re-named St. Vincent's Arbutus Hospital. In 1991 they opened St. Vincent's Langara extended care.
The Heather and Arbutus sites have closed, but Langara remains, and the Honoria Conway Residence for seniors, named after the SCIC founder, opened in 2008 on land formerly occupied by St. Vincent's Heather.
When Archbishop James Carney asked the sisters to establish an archdiocesan archives office, Sister Diana Harsch became the first archivist in 1980 and continued in the work until her death in November 1995.
In the last 10-20 years there has been a severe decline in vocations for the Sisters of Charity, like many orders.
Interviewed recently, the sisters who are leaving drew on their strong and enduring faith to put a positive spin on the changes which have affected them and others.
"We know that while we are withdrawing the work will go on, although in a different way," said Sister MacDonald. "God, it seems, has another plan for religious orders in His Church, but we are confident of His providence and know that our leaving is just part of the story."
"I think the schools are doing a good job and I am happy with how students today recognize the importance of helping the poor," said Sister Stancato.
Sister Mary Beth McCurdy, congregation superior, was on hand for the farewell. She accepted a papal blessing of appreciation from Archbishop Miller, and thanked him for his kind words for the congregation and for the departing sisters.
Holy Name pastor Father Robert Wong, SJ, acknowledged that everyone was going to miss the sisters and their vibrant presence across the street from the parish. "I have felt 'blessed among (you) women,'" he said with a smile.
The reception which followed gave the sisters' many friends, former students, and patients the opportunity to say an (occasionally) tearful goodbye.