Canada’s religious life was enriched during
the 19th century, when European religious congregations of women arrived to
carry on their apostolate in a new land.
Many of these communities enjoyed remarkable flourishing. One such order was the Institute of the Sisters of Charity of Mount St. Vincent, Halifax. This congregation had the proud distinction of being ranked a papal institution, an honour conferred by St. Pius X.
The founding sisters came not from Europe but from the United States, bringing the spirit of Mother Elizabeth Seton. She was an unlikely instigator.
Mother Seton was brought to the very threshold of the Catholic Church by his untimely death.
A convert from Protestantism whose beloved husband died young, Mother Seton was brought to the very threshold of the Catholic Church by his untimely death.
Mother converted to Catholicism, became a nun, and started something very special – a religious revolution. She did this through hearing and answering a call from above that was only revealed over time.
In creating her own female religious community, Mother gave birth to the first American congregation of nuns, the Sisters of Charity. Today she is also the first American-born saint.
Religious life in community has its origins in the early days of the Church, beginning 2,000 years ago in Galilee when the Lord gathered disciples and lived in common with them during his first year of public life.
He chose 12 from their numbers, sending them out as messengers to preach the Gospel to the whole world. He lived in close companionship with his male apostles, and the bond that united them grew until the Last Supper and the institution of the holy priesthood.
Meanwhile, since the apostolic age there have been holy women called by Christ to take an active part in the good works of the Church. Our Lady, St. Mary Magdalene, and other saints come to mind.
However, it was not until the fifth century that women banded together to live in religious communities after the Augustinian nuns adopted St. Augustine’s Rule of Augustine.
Since then, social customs have changed and knowledge has developed, but the principles of religious life retain their practical value.
The role of a woman as a professed nun is an extraordinary vocation held by the Church and the saints in the highest esteem.
The role of a woman as a professed nun is an extraordinary vocation held by the Church and the saints in the highest esteem. Code of Canon Law (604) expresses the Church’s acknowledgment of those who are “betrothed mystically” to Christ and “dedicated to the service of the Church.”
Nuns warm the heart as they busy themselves “building up Christ’s body” (Eph 4:12) by devoting themselves completely to their mission. Everything most particular to women – capacity to love, help, solace, nurturing, instruction, warmth, teaching, and mentoring – comes naturally from the nun.
The Catechism the Catholic Church pays tribute to nuns, who from apostolic times have been called by the Lord to cling only to him with greater freedom of heart, body, and spirit “for the sake of the kingdom of God” (CCC 922).
In 1965 the world’s bishops at the Second Vatican Council promulgated Perfectae Caritatis – a short decree on the appropriate renewal of the religious life, including nuns. The document highlights themes that appeal to young women discerning a possible call to religious life: dying to sin, oblation, renouncing the world, self-surrender to Christ (Rom 6:11) and leading a life hidden with Christ (Col 3:3).
Writing of cloistered nuns, the Council made clear that their way of life is to be preserved and that they are the “glory” of the Church and an “overflowing fountain” of heavenly graces (Perfectae Caritatis 7).
On the eve of the cultural and sexual revolution of 1968, the Council Fathers prophetically wrote: “Religious obedience will not diminish the dignity of the human person but will rather lead it to maturity in consequence of that enlarged freedom which belongs to the sons of God” (PC 14).
At that time, just 50 years ago, nuns were plentiful and new convents were being constructed everywhere. Then came the Sixties Revolution which suddenly rendered the vocation of nun obsolete.
Virtually unknown to many young Catholic women is that they can still be nuns today and that they have many options to live this exciting vocation. To live in a vibrant congregation in a thriving convent with a dynamic mission is a beautiful calling. It is crucial for young Catholic women to experience the process of discernment that is fundamental to a mature Catholic life.
Although many congregations are in decline, God’s grace still inspires fresh new vocations everywhere, with congregations that maintain the full habit surviving and attracting young members.
J.P. Sonnen is a tour operator and history docent with Vancouver-based Orbis Catholicus Travel.