It says something about a community — even a community that, by its very nature, is exclusively women — when even the man delivering the heating oil is considered nearly family.
Smack in the middle of the general chapter meeting of the Community of the Sisters of the Church, one of four Anglican religious orders in Canada, the doorbell rang just as the gathering was to celebrate Eucharist. The fuel man was serving his last day before retiring, filling the two large tanks that heat the sprawling St. Michael’s House. He wanted to say good-bye to the residents, the Sisters of the Church. Several members of the community filed out of chapel to exchange farewells with the man and to take photographs to commemorate the moment.
The recent general chapter, held every two or three years in a different province each time, brought representatives of the 100 or so Sisters of the Church to St. Michael’s House, a home and meeting place nestled on the old tree-lined lakeshore drive of stately Oakville, Ont.
All seven members (including two retired nuns and one postulant) of the Canadian province attended, plus two sisters from Australia, three from the Solomon Islands and six from the United Kingdom, including the order’s head and mother superior, Sister Anita, who is also sister provincial (or head sister of the province) of the U.K.
The order is facing widely differing challenges – one, of shrinking numbers in the Western world — namely, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia — and second, the burgeoning membership in its newest province, the Solomon Islands. Last September, the Australia/Pacific province was divided in two — Australia and the Solomon Islands — to accommodate the Solomons’ growth.
The sisters brought in facilitators for most of their week-long meeting to help the gathering focus on its challenges, including how to live and work together 24 hours a day, with the same individuals. Many of the sisters co-exist in such close proximity that they must develop skills to cope with basic family dynamics, said Sr. Anita. The group also used a healing circle, a traditional aboriginal gathering with a circular formation where each member is encouraged to speak.
“It is a very different format from our Western-style discussions,” said Sr. Anita, a Briton. “It is very time consuming, but things can really be said and be heard.”
The sisters also pledged to continue to build and maintain inter-provincial connections. There is some movement among the provinces: one Australian sister has lived in the U.K. community for more than a decade and Phyllis, the former sister provincial from the Solomons, is studying theology in England.
Although she will bring that education back to the islands, the time that an experienced nun spends away from the community is tenuous, said Sr. Anita.
Bringing a Solomon Island sister to the U.K. or Canada to study and learn from more experienced members “would be great,” she added, but the community is still young and somewhat fragile in the Solomons. Removing one of the more seasoned nuns could upset the community’s existence.
The challenge for the nuns outside the Solomons, said Sr. Anita, is sharing their experience “without being overbearing.”
Sr. Doreen, the sister provincial of the Solomon Islands, reported that her community continues to grow. Now totalling 54 professed nuns and novices, there are presently more members in the Solomons than there are in the other provinces added together. In an interview, Sr. Doreen noted that the community is an attractive option for women in the islands, particularly since they have few employment options and are expected only to marry and bear children.
Communication is a challenge for the province, since many members in isolated communities have no access to fax, e-mail or telephone. Traditional mail or radio are the only methods of communicating, said Sr. Doreen
Meanwhile, the Australian province said that its challenge is how to remain a community when the sisters no longer live together. The sisters closed all three of their houses because they could not keep up the maintenance, nor could the sisters – aging and dwindling in numbers – sustain the ministries. One house in Melbourne was both home to some sisters and a day conference centre, similar to the ministry at Oakville’s St. Michael’s House.
Sr. Linda Mary, sister provincial for Australia, said that much of her job now is co-ordinating communication between members in her province, most of whom live alone. One sister who used to live at one of the order’s houses has developed a simple ministry of “befriending people” and hosting meetings, said Sr. Linda Mary. Another has become involved with a parish church, which would have been unlikely when she lived in community with other nuns.
- Sisters celebrate order’s new province
October 2001 www.anglican.ca website news story
- Sisters head to Solomons to usher in new province;
Gathering will give thanks to nuns who helped during civil unrest
August 2001 www.anglican.ca website news story
- Community of the Sisters of the Church
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