Villa Angela has been home to the Ursuline Sisters of Chatham since 2006, but their roots in southwestern Ontario stretch back 159 years. Photo courtesy Ursuline Sisters of Chatham

Chatham’s Ursuline sisters prepare for new chapter

  • June 13, 2019

The reality of a dwindling, aging community is setting in for the Ursuline Sisters of Chatham, but it won’t keep them from continuing the work they’ve carried out for more than a century and a half in southwestern Ontario.

The Ursulines have chosen to sell Villa Angela, home for the 64 Ursuline sisters who remain in the community, but they aren’t going anywhere just yet.

“We will be here until the last sister is no longer and we’ll continue to find new ways to be connected, supportive and engaged in issues that are before us,” said Sr. Theresa Campeau, community leader of the Ursuline Sisters of Chatham.

And they’ll remain at Villa Angela, named after St. Angela Merici, who founded the order in Brescia, Italy, in 1535. They will just be renting the space from Jarlette Health Services, the family-owned, Midland, Ont.-based long-term care provider that has purchased the property. 

Campeau said the community has reached a crossroads in its 159-year association with Chatham and the surrounding area between London and Windsor. At its 2017 General Chapter, the decision was made to sell Villa Angela, their home since 2006, and rent living space back from the new owners so that the Ursulines could continue their presence in the community. That time is now, and a deal has been worked out that is expected to close on Dec. 31.

“It is a bittersweet moment as we face our reality but also at the same time we want to free each other to respond to the call of the Gospel in fresh ways,” said Campeau. “By letting go of the managing of our building we would welcome the ability to minister beyond our walls.”

That ministry will continue the social justice focus the sisters have concentrated on since coming to Chatham in May of 1860. Today, in collaboration with other organizations, they work with victims of domestic abuse, on ecological concerns and with those affected by human trafficking, among others. 

“We thought this is the time while we still have a lot of energy to both process that change as well as be a presence to the people of Chatham-Kent and beyond,” she said.

“I think we still have a desire and a passion and a Gospel call to continue to find those ways to respond to the needs of our day.”

The Chatham-based sisters find themselves in the same shoes as compadres in Ursuline communities around Canada. The sisters have been a missionary presence in Canada since 1639, but an aging membership has seen communities at the original Ursuline motherhouse in Quebec City and elsewhere move out of or sell their buildings.

The numbers have also dwindled. In the early 1960s there were over 450 Ursuline sisters in Chatham. By the early years of the 21st century, numbers had fallen to less than 150 sisters and the average age was 75. 

The Ursuline legacy, however, is well established in southwestern Ontario. The Chatham sisters have a long connection to the education system in the region (though sisters are no longer in classrooms), including Brescia University College at Western University, which is celebrating 100 years as Canada’s only university college for women. Windsor’s Glengarda Child and Family Services is also rooted in the original foundation established by the order. And they remain involved with community partners in local, national and global concerns.

“We’re still planting seeds and those seeds will flourish long after we’re gone,” said Campeau.

Campeau said the sisters are looking forward to the day when Villa Angela will be home to more than just the sisters.

“That will open new and fresh opportunities for us to share our lives with others who will call this home,” said Campeau.

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