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Sisters of Charity (Halifax)

1936 was the year that the Diocese of Nelson was created, and it was also the year that the Sisters of Charity, whose head office is in Halifax, NS, came to the Diocese.  Since that time over 140 Sisters have come to minister in the parishes, schools and Seton House of Prayer.

It was in 1936 that the Oblate Fathers, under a mandate from the Department of Indian Affairs, asked the congregation to come to help staff St. Eugene Mission near Cranbrook, and to take up the work of the outgoing Sisters of Providence, working with as many as 150 First Nations students as teachers, housekeepers, caretakers, and nurses.  In 1912, a ‘new’ school was built, considered to be one of the largest and best-equipped in western Canada, but as one of the Sisters put it at the time, it “did not ease the urge to be ‘home’ for the children. Beyond the mission, the Sisters travelled to many towns in the East Kootenays – Cranbrook, Galloway, Grasmere, Moyie, Fort Steele, Kimblerley and Canal Flats – to assist with catechetics and the sacraments with First Nations and non-First Nations Catholics.

In 1965, St. Mary’s School opened in Cranbrook, to serve the children of the parish and the area including those at St. Eugene’s, who commuted to the school for five years until St. Eugene’s was closed in June of 1970.  Some forty Sisters served at the mission for over thirty-four years.  The sisters moved to Cranbrook to work in the school as teachers, librarians, and administrators, and to serve in the two parishes. Sister Gertrude McGovern, presently living in Kelowna, worked as Diocesan Coordinator for adult education and renewal programs for the East Kootenay area at that time.  The Cranbrook house of the Sisters closed in 1994.

Back in 1937, a diocesan priest/pastor replaced the Oblate pastor in Sacred Heart Parish in Kimberley and asked for Sisters of Charity to work in the parish.  A kindergarten was soon underway, music classes were being offered and choirs organized, catechetics taught and catechists trained.  When the convent in Kimberley closed in 1966, some thirty Sisters of Charity had served in the Kimberley area for over twenty-nine years.

Two years after arriving in the Diocese, in 1938, the Sisters came to Kelowna. In a Sister of Charity newsletter of the time was this description: “Our work in Kelowna is mainly in the schools…  Our catechetical program is a large one, with an enrolment of almost five hundred students…Other areas of involvement are the Catholic Women’s League, Legion of Mary, and the Voice of the Unborn, and many of us are involved in prayer and bible-study groups…People are receptive and willing to share responsibility in forming the total Christian community…At first, Immaculate Conception Convent was a social service and catechetical centre, but as the schools were built, the sisters served as teachers, administrators, social and pastoral workers.”  In 1992, the Sisters moved from the large convent to a small house on Sutherland Avenue.  In all, from 1938 to 1996, eighty Sisters served from Immaculate Conception Convent.

In 1975, Bishop Emmett Doyle asked Sr. Gertrude McGovern and Sister Lucy Dumont, a Sister of St. Ann, to work in Kelowna in the formation of lay ministries.  The work encompassed home visiting, parish council workshops, marriage preparation courses, adult religious education and courses for young single adults.  However needs elsewhere prompted a change of direction after two years.  In 1974, Bishop Doyle had asked for Sisters to staff a centre, Seton House of Prayer, in the Summerland area which opened in October of that year.  It became a centre for lay ministry groups and the development of prayer and spirituality but the Sisters found time to continue catechetical work as well.  With the need well-established, but unable to build in Summerland, Bishop Doyle purchased property in South Kelowna where St. Elizabeth Seton House of Prayer (named after the founder of the Sisters of Charity) was built and opened in 1986.  The Sisters of Charity from Summerland moved to Kelowna to staff the Centre, which they did until 1991.  Thirteen Sisters of Charity ministered in St. Elizabeth Seton House of Prayer over a twenty-year period.

A number of Sisters of Charity worked out of Nelson, the church headquarters of the Diocese.  Sr. Katherine Meagher was the first, coming in 1976 as the Chancellor of the Diocese, and director of the Marriage Tribunal.  In 1978, Sr. Phyllis Giroux came to Nelson to set up a Diocesan Communications Office, working in that capacity for five years.  She returned to assist with the Diocesan Synod of 1989, and in 2010 returned to work in the Bishop’s Office when the Catholic Pastoral Centre was established in Kelowna.  Sr. Maria Santos served as Diocesan Archivist for a number of years, and Sr. Anne Harvey facilitated the Diocesan Synod in 1989.

Since 1996, Associates of the Sisters of Charity, local women and men who find in themselves resonating with the spirit and work of the Sisters, have partnered with the Sisters to grow in their faith and understanding, and to serve needs in Summerland and in Kelowna.

The opening of the Catholic Pastoral Centre, housing administrative offices for the Diocese, took place in July 2011, the year of the 75th Anniversary of the Sisters of Charity in the Diocese.  At that time, a stained glass window honouring St. Elizabeth Seton and the Sisters of Charity was installed in St. Charles Garnier Church.  Three Sisters of Charity remain in the Diocese today:  Sr. Gertrude McGovern, in retirement in Kelowna, Sr. Phyllis Giroux, working in the Bishop’s Office and Sr. Elaine Biollo, working as Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese.  The work of over 140 Sisters of Charity, and their Associates, is still bearing fruit in the Diocese of Nelson, celebrating the Year of Consecrated Life, 2015.

By Phyllis Giroux SC