Loretto Sisters meet needs of their community for 400 years

  • January 8, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - The Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary , commonly known as the Loretto Sisters, continues to serve the needy in a variety of ministries as the worldwide order celebrates its 400th anniversary this year.

While the order’s early years during the Protestant Reformation were rough at best, its introduction to Canada nearly 250 years later also met with some dramatic obstacles. Five sisters, sent to Toronto from Ireland in 1847 to teach Irish immigrants, landed in the midst of a deadly typhus outbreak which took the life of Toronto’s Bishop Michael Power just weeks after their arrival. Within the year, a few of the sisters had passed away themselves, unprepared for the harsh Canadian winter. However, the survivors were later joined by more sisters from Ireland, and today the order here still counts as many as 100 religious sisters, mostly based in Toronto and Guelph, but also present in Saskatchewan, who strive to emulate the charisms of their foundress, Mary Ward.

“We are proud of our foundress, a vibrant English woman born in Yorkshire in 1585,” Sr. Maria Lanthier, IBVM, told The Catholic Register. “Mary Ward’s vision for her followers in the Institute urges us to minister in a variety of works that answer the needs of these times — especially in developing the unused potential of women’s giftedness and skills which can be available for the growth of the kingdom of God.”

Mary WardAlthough Ward’s original focus was on the education of young women, the order encourages personal reflection on God’s plan for each and every person and the needs of the time, which allows for a lot of flexibility, Lanthier said.

Lanthier has spent some time working in the Canadian north with aboriginal people and also in Africa, but has dedicated much of her efforts over the past 20 years to helping refugees.

“We’ve probably brought in about 80 refugees since the Vietnamese boat people in 1979,” she said. “We’ve watched the kids develop, seeing the teenagers now in college. It’s amazing what they can contribute to Canada.”

In Canada, the Loretto Sisters’ ministry, founded on Ignatian spirituality, extends from education to helping the poor, doing retreat work, spiritual direction, work with refugees, parish ministry and more. Worldwide the Sisters take care to adjust their services to the greatest needs of the people they serve, which was their foundress’ ideal, Lanthier emphasized. One Sister based in Kenya, for example, has dedicated herself to working with those affected by female genital mutilation, while in India, Sisters are assisting families in establishing micro-credit.

A newer ministry in Toronto over the past 60 years is the order’s study of ecology and its relation to spirituality. The Loretto Maryholme Spirituality Centre on Lake Simcoe is used to provide directed, guided or private retreats and days of reflection, programs that promote ecological awareness, community building and faith development.

In Guelph, Ont., the Sisters are well-known for their ministry to the poor, especially to the homeless and the mentally ill, at the Welcome In Drop-In Centre founded by Sr. Christine Leyser, IBVM, who was inducted into the Order of Canada this year.

The Loretto Sisters have much to owe their foundress, who laid a broad foundation for empowerment of women and their active role in society today, said Barbara Sheppard, a novice studying with the Lorettos in Toronto. 

During her life, Ward met much resistance from the church and society. Women were devalued as persons and were not allowed to be involved in religious life other than in the monastic form. Ward’s goal for the order was for the Sisters to be exempt from praying the Divine Office and be free from the cloister and religious dress. She wanted her women to have the freedom to minister freely to the needy in society. The more controversial demand was that the order be governed by one of its own and be subject directly to the pope rather than to a local bishop.

The prevailing attitude towards women during Reformation-era England was a difficult obstacle to overcome. Yet, Sheppard said, Ward saw so many horrific events before she began exploring the religious life that it’s no wonder she felt a need to serve Christ outside the cloister.

“She grew up seeing injustice. She saw people spend their lives in jail because they were Catholics — so she grew up knowing injustice was wrong,” Sheppard said.

Ward has taught Sheppard that every woman needs to know their “authentic self.”

“In knowing that, you know what God’s dream for you is,” Sheppard said. “She had a really strong sense of self and wanted others to have that dignity and self-esteem.”

Sheppard said it was important for her to live with people who believe that God loves diversity and where obedience means following God’s will through the direction of the Holy Spirit. Both she and Lanthier described this as “not refusing to go to a place where there could be great mission because of fear when it is obvious there is work to be done there.”

The Loretto Sisters have 10 provinces around the globe: Canada, the United States, Eastern Africa, Australia, India, Mauritius, Ireland, England, South Africa and Spain. The order has a presence in Peru, Morocco and Vietnam, among other places, and has established missions in Albania, Sudan, Ghana, Zambia, Seychelles, Bangladesh and Ecuador.

To commemorate the 400th anniversary, the Sisters will erect a “peace pole,” created by Saskatchewan Sister Veronica Hager, in front of Loretto Abbey, the Canadian motherhouse in Toronto.

And on May 3, Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins will preside at a Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Paul’s Basilica in Toronto for friends, benefactors and family members. Also in commemoration, the sisters will organize two India Service Trips for students and will also collaborate on several lectures at Regis College and the University of Toronto.

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