Sisters of Service Anna McNally, Marilyn Gillespie, Marilyn MacDonald, Mary Halder, Mary-Ellen Francouer, Joan Schafhauser, Adua Zampese and Coleen Young celebrated 100 years of their religious institute with some of their wide circle of friends at the Hunt Club in Toronto Aug. 15. Photo by Michael Swan

A century of ‘adventure’ for Sisters of Service

  • August 21, 2022

The Sisters of Service have had a century — a century of change, challenge and charity. At their 100th anniversary celebration held at Toronto Hunt, the tiny, aging religious institute gave their guests parting gifts of their own adventurous, arduous history of welcoming refugees, teaching the faith and nurturing communities.

The new 400-page history by M.C. Havey, I Have Come To Serve, outlines how founder Catherine Donnelly’s determined drive to serve remote and isolated communities blossomed into an innovative reinterpretation of religious life.

In a video produced just for the 100th anniversary, the Sisters and their friends boil the whole century down to 27 minutes.

“The SOS had a vision of religious life that was different,” said Congregation of St. Joseph congregational leader Sr. Georgette Gregory in congratulatory remarks before dinner.

Where most religious sisters lived in convents, often attached to hospitals or schools, the Sisters of Service were sent out in twos and threes to small communities that had no schools or hospitals. They lived among the people in remote communities where the post-World War I immigrants and refugees were sent to settle in Western Canada. They taught in public schools, established cottage hospitals, baptized babies and taught English throughout Western Canada.

In 1922 this was a bold experiment in religious life, said Gregory, whose much larger congregation provides administrative support to the 10 remaining Sisters of Service.

“After Vatican II this experiment was no longer an experiment,” Gregory said.

Sr. Anna McNally summed up the 100 years as a century of “adventure.”

McNally took time to remember the Sisters who have gone before her.

“They were companions in this great adventure. We remember them fondly,” she said.

Though the remaining Sisters are all well beyond a normal retirement age — with no intention of retiring — the adventure lives on in a legacy of three separate endowments that carry on the work of Catherine Donnelly and her companions.

The SOS continue to serve the Church in Canada through an endowment for the Centre for Religious Education and Catechesis at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, another endowment to the Canadian Council for Refugees for work with women refugees and the Catherine Donnelly Foundation, which since 2003 has funded projects in adult education, housing and environmental preservation. The endowments have been funded and continue to operate under a framework of ethical investments.

Former Catherine Donnelly Foundation board chair Mike Flynn praised the Sisters’ commitment to the future as he urged dinner guests to raise a glass.

“It’s really exciting to see what they were able to do with the Catherine Donnelly Foundation,” Flynn said. “If we’re going to have a better world, we’re going to have to commit to making sure that the structures are going to be reformed.”

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