Members and supporters of Kingston, Ont.’s Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul on vigil outside Kingston City Hall. The sisters will be bringing the vigil to an end Sept. 17. Photo courtesy of the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul

Poverty vigil runs its course

  • September 11, 2015

For 20 years, the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul have lined a small corner in front of Kingston’s City Hall to stand in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable in society.

On Sept. 17, the sisters of the Kingston community will celebrate the end of their silent social justice vigil from 5 to 7 p.m.

Kingston’s town crier Chris Whyman will mark the vigil with a special proclamation from the City of Kingston declaring Sept. 17 as Social Justice Vigil Recognition Day. The Shout Sister and the Providence Motherhouse choirs will be leading the musical celebrations with the Sisters of the Drum.

The presence of the vigil keepers has been a familiar symbol of public witness for social justice in the Eastern Ontario city. Jamie Swift, director of the sisters’ Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation office, said that the decision to end the vigil came after months and months of discernment. He admits that it was a hard decision.

“A few of the vigil keepers who have been regulars thought that we should keep it going, but we spent about four months last winter talking about this... In the end, we came to the conclusion that 20 years was a good long time,” said Swift. “One of the reasons of course is that orders of women religious are aging and fewer and fewer of the Sisters of Providence have been able to get down there every Friday at noon... You can put it in Vatican II terms in that it’s a sign of the times in a way.”

The silent vigils first began in the fall of 1995 as a response to the Ontario government cutting social assistance rates by 22 per cent, one of the first major policy decisions implemented as part of the Mike Harris Progressive Conservative government’s “Common Sense Revolution.”

“All religious congregations across Ontario reacted to this by some action and our response was to begin a weekly silent, non-violent protest,” said Sr. Sandra Shannon, general superior of the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul. “Our motivation for doing this was our understanding of the mission of Jesus... and our mission as Sisters of Providence to be also in solidarity with the poor and to serve the poor.”

Shannon said that the silent vigil is cause for great celebration.

“I just can’t say enough how wonderful these vigil keepers are and how they’ve supported the poor in Kingston,” said Shannon. “We owe a great deal, too, to our Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation office which has spearheaded the vigil from the beginning.”

In the early years of the vigil, many sisters came to protest alongside representatives from many other religious affiliations and concerned Kingston residents. For the hour that they stood on the sidewalk, dozens of people would wear signs and hand out pamphlets to passers by. Every week, that tradition continued.

Swift has been a part of the vigil since the beginning, before he started working for the Sisters of Providence. He joined the vigil because it was something he believed in.

“For me personally, it symbolizes a defence of public space and public good... in an era that is always emphasizing cutting taxes and reducing public services to our most vulnerable neighbours and those kinds of initiatives,” said Swift.

Over the years, Swift said there has generally been no negative reaction to their presence in front of city hall. Occasionally, there would be passersby who would stop to engage in conversation with them and cars would honk in support as they drove by. However, there would be many more who simply avoided contact or crossed the street to avoid the group entirely.

“I find the most negative reaction is being completely ignored,” said Swift.

“I guess it’s a statement on how uneasy some people in our culture are with the idea of making a public statement about public issues.”

On Sept. 18, a few of the silent vigil keepers will be gathering in front of city hall for the last time from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m.

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