Sisters of Providence mark 150 years of service to the poor

By  Therese Greenwood, Catholic Register Special
  • April 13, 2011
Sr. Peggy Flanagan of the Sisters of Providence in a prayerful moment at a silent vigil in front of Kingston City Hall. (Photo courtesy of the Sisters of Providence)KINGSTON, Ont. - The Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul, the only religious congregation founded in Kingston, is marking 150 years of service to the poor with a year-long series of events celebrating the congregation’s history.

“Throughout the year we will be highlighting the different ways we have been in service,” said Sr. Jeannette Filthaut, a Sister of Providence and member of the team organizing the celebrations. “We want to showcase how throughout a century and a half we have lived our charism of compassionate caring for God’s people.”

The celebrations focus on themes of mission, ministry and heritage with events held at various locations, including health care institutions founded by the congregation, and Kingston’s historic St. Mary’s Cemetery and St. Mary’s Cathedral. Celebrations culminate at Providence Motherhouse on Dec. 13, the anniversary of the order’s founding.

“We started quietly last December with our congregation and our associates across Canada in prayer,” said Sr. Jeannette. “Throughout 2011 we will cover different areas as we celebrate publicly what we do and where we have been.”  

The congregation has a long and storied history, beginning in Kingston prior to Confederation and marked by a relationship with a friend and advisor of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister. Kingston’s Bishop E.J. Horan, who played a key role in assisting Macdonald with the British North America Act and Confederation, invited the Montreal Sisters of Providence to come to his city to establish an institute to aid the poor, orphaned and aged.

On Dec. 13, 1861, four Sisters arrived in Kingston to found what is now known as the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul. The next year Catherine McKinley, daughter of a local shipwright, joined the new community. When the Montreal Sisters returned home four years later, McKinley became Superior of the new congregation as Mother Mary Edward.

The Kingston Sisters do not attribute their founding to a single originator, a practice which differs from that of many religious communities. The congregation views its founding as a journey involving key people guided by a deep spirituality and passion for social justice. They believe that the foresight of Horan, the courage of the Montreal Sisters and the pioneer spirit of Mother Mary Edward has left a legacy of active compassion which lives on in today’s congregation — and in the good works they initiated, many now in the capable hands of lay people in institutions across Canada.

From their original work with Kingston’s poor, the Sisters’ mission spread internationally, founding health care institutions across Canada, laying the groundwork for an American congregation in Holyoke, Mass., and eventually launching missions in Guatemala and Peru.

Their work also included teaching, working with the aged and other ministries to meet the needs of the times.

“It is my feeling that you can guide others to carry on your charism,” said Sr. Jeannette, “and we have seen that across the country in how we have begun things that are now being carried on by others.”

May’s festivities involve a two-day event telling the Providence story with the dual themes of “Our Identity” and “Our Heritage.” Among the storytellers are special invited guests from the international group Women of Providence in Collaboration, the Montreal Sisters of Providence, the Holyoke Sisters and the archdiocese of Kingston.

The congregation’s legacy of service endures as the remaining 100 Sisters of Providence continue to live their mission statement of seeking to empower others, especially the poor and oppressed, to achieve a quality of life in keeping with their human dignity. Current efforts include working to eradicate violence against women as well as a focus on ecology that includes an heirloom seed sanctuary and the promotion of food security. The Sisters continue outreach to schools and community, and facilitate retreats and workshops at Providence Spirituality Centre.

The congregation also continues to inspire and lead the Kingston community with a vibrant and effective Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Office, for the past 15 years the organizer of weekly silent vigils in solidarity with the poor on many issues facing Canadians. Most recently members of the congregation stood with local farmers and Canadian writer Margaret Atwood to protest the closing of Kingston’s prison farms.

This enduring spirit of leadership, compassionate care and connection to human dignity will also be reflected in the anniversary celebrations still being planned.

“Our celebration is one of inclusiveness and we will be doing an outreach with the poor and marginalized,” said Sr. Jeannette. “We want to continue to be present with all those who journey with us as Providence unfolds.”

(Greenwood is a writer from Wolfe Island, Ont.)

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