The Sisters of St. Ann in procession before a Mass celebrating their 160th year. Photo by L. Dall

Sisters of St. Ann plan to keep their mission going amid shrinking numbers and climbing age

By  Agnieszka Krawczynski, Canadian Catholic News
  • June 25, 2018

VICTORIA, B.C. – Over the past 160 years, the Sisters of St. Ann have taught thousands of students, treated thousands more patients, and multiplied social justice efforts in B.C.

Now, as a congregation of sisters older than Canada itself faces dwindling numbers and no new recruits, it’s finding new ways to continue the mission they arrived with in 1858.

Once there were as many as 200 Sisters of St. Ann serving in education, health care, pastoral care and other efforts in the Pacific Northwest. Now, there are 27 sisters left with an average age of 83.

Sr. Marina Smith, who joined the community 65 years ago, says the focus as the community ages is not about leaving their stamp on history. “We do not try to set a legacy,” Smith told The B.C. Catholic. “We’re not about that.”

Instead, the plan is to set things in motion so even after the last Sister of St. Ann in B.C. has passed away, their 160-plus years of dedicated service to the poor and marginalized will not come to a stop.

“We’re not leaving something in our memory. We’re continuing something. It’s like what Jesus did: He left apostles to continue His mission. We’re hoping that’s what we’re about: continuing His mission.”

The sisters held a celebration in honour of their 160th birthday a few weeks ago in Victoria, where an estimated 500 sisters, supporters and friends — including those taught and nursed by them — acknowledged their work so far and the efforts to come.

Blessed Marie Anne Blondin founded the Sisters of St. Ann in Vaudreuil, Que., in 1850. In her words, the purpose of the congregation was “the education of poor country children, both girls and boys in the same schools.”

They were 44 sisters strong when Bishop Modeste Demers of Vancouver Island came to visit in 1857 and asked if some sisters could travel west and open schools in his diocese.

Four sisters made the two-month journey back with him, arriving in Victoria June 5, 1858, four years before the city was incorporated. 

By their 60th anniversary, they had opened 21 schools, educated 17,000 students, founded four hospitals and cared for 450 orphans. By their 160th anniversary, the Sisters of St. Ann have opened or operated schools in B.C., the Yukon, Washington and Alaska. Some have since closed, while others, such as Little Flower Academy established in Vancouver in 1927, are still running.

The sisters also opened 10 hospitals and St. Joseph’s School of Nursing, which trained generations of medical professionals in its 81 years in Victoria. Some hospitals have since closed, while others like Mount St. Mary Hospital were passed into other hands.

Since the day they opened that rustic one-room school, the Sisters of St. Ann have cared about social justice.

“Throughout our history, the sisters have really challenged systems that have excluded people from the benefits of an education, health care and the opportunity to develop to his or her full potential,” said provincial co-leader Sr. Marie Zarowny.

“That’s what we strove to do in our schools, in our teaching of religious education, our health care institutions, and that we continue to do, wherever we are.”

Zarowny, who has spent most of her 59 years with the congregation serving the marginalized, is a good example. She was the Diocese of Victoria’s first co-ordinator of its social justice office and has also worked with dioceses in northern Canada on various projects, including a study of economic and social concerns. One project resulted in three statements by bishops from Yukon to Labrador condemning domestic violence.

More recently, the Sisters of St. Ann helped found and fund Returning to Spirit, a non-profit that reconciles Indigenous and non-Indigenous people (the sisters once operated four residential schools) and donated to a new program at St. Paul’s University that links First Nations healing and psychotherapy studies.

The sisters haven’t solely focused on relations with First Nations peoples, either. “We’re always concerned about living the social Gospel of Christ,” said Sr. Joyce Harris, chair of the sisters’ B.C. social justice committee. “It is the heart of what it means to be a Christian, in my opinion.”

Locally, Harris has contributed to Faith in Action, a group that advocates for public policy for the homeless and poor; Kairos, an ecumenical social justice and advocacy group, and Anawim House, a home for men recovering from poverty and addiction.

Now, life is changed, but not ended for the Sisters of St. Ann.

“We’re moving into a new phase of our ministry,” said Smith. “Because we’re not the young, energetic people we were, can we spread God’s love through other people doing the ministry?”

They have many resources saved up over 160 years, said Smith. “We’ve always kept money for what’s called ministry and mission,” she explained. 

Those sisters who taught in Catholic schools over so many years didn’t keep their salaries for themselves; a large portion of those funds went into a fund for future missions and is now being distributed. The sisters are also downsizing, selling land (including their motherhouse in Quebec) and donating the funds to worthy organizations.

They’ve given a significant boost to Development and Peace ($4 million) and Victoria groups like Rosalie’s Village, a housing project for single moms and women fleeing abuse, and the Cool Aid Society, a group working to build 61 affordable housing units in Victoria.

These organizations aren’t necessarily Catholic.

“To us, this 160th means finding ways to carry on the ministry and keep it alive,” said Smith. “There are people out there doing wonderful things. By connecting with them, we’re hoping to bring the Christian dimension.”

The sisters are also still very focused on education, donating funds to Catholic schools — including $3 million to St. Mark’s College (the largest donation the college has ever received) — and creating bursaries to help disadvantaged students get post-secondary degrees in Victoria.

They also sent $2 million to Haiti, where Catholic schools and the Sisters of St. Ann working there were hard-hit after the 2010 earthquake.

While the congregation admits its work is “nearing completion” in B.C. and membership in Quebec and Massachusetts is dwindling, efforts in other parts of the globe are thriving.

The Sisters of St. Ann in Haiti were founded when four sisters went to build schools there around 1945. One sister died of malaria, but the other three managed to plant a new community that is now 55 sisters strong and growing, with most members under the age of 40.

(The B.C. Catholic

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.