The Sisters of Charity Halifax in the Home of the Guardian Angel, Halifax, circa 1961. Photos provided by Mary Flynn, Congregational Archivist, Sisters of Charity - Halifax

‘A thousand lifetimes of service’

  • April 20, 2024

From humble beginnings when four of their Sisters arrived in Halifax from New York in the mid-19th century, the Sisters of Charity Halifax are set to mark 175 years of service on May 11.

The Sisters of Charity Halifax have been serving its community’s needs in various ways since the original Sisters arrived in the Nova Scotia capital in 1849. The religious community is using this milestone to acknowledge that today’s Sisters continue to stand on the shoulders of 2,500+ professed Sisters who came before and continue to be with them now.

The Sister’s historic mission began when the four Sisters from the New York Sisters of Charity arrived in Halifax and began their ministry at St. Mary’s School and Convent on Barrington Street, a moment in time that current members note as launching “a thousand lifetimes of service.” 

“The very next day after those Sisters arrived, they had their first orphan living with them. At the end of the first couple of weeks there were already 200 students in St. Mary’s School and by the end of the first year close to 400 students,” said Sr. Sheilagh Martin. “So although they were brought here for education, we can say the Sisters met the needs of the time by also taking care of any orphans or babies that were left with them.” 

The congregation grew, spreading across the Americas due to young women expressing interest in a life devoted to ministry. Other parts of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were next in line before Bermuda in 1890, Massachusetts in 1899 and finally returning to serve in New York in 1924.

Since then, Western Canada, Peru and the Dominican Republic have been impacted by the Sisters of Charity Halifax.

“We have really spread out geographically over the years, but we were always taking care of whatever the need was. It was always connected in one way or another with education, social service or health care,” said Sr. Kathleen Kull. “Even as the years change and the needs change, those three seem to be the focus that we’ve always attended to.” 

Both women have been with Sisters of Charity Halifax for many years, Martin joining them her first year after high school in 1958 and Kull recalling admiring the happiness expressed by Sisters she had known growing up. Having devoted their lives to the betterment of others mainly through education, the two admit their vocation has also helped shape their own faith formation. 

“As members of this religious congregation, we’ve had numerous occasions to deepen those spiritual experiences with everything from retreats, any number of workshops and even through rubbing shoulders with people who were the go-getters in the areas of theology and spiritual development,” Martin said. 

Perhaps the most impressive aspect across 175 years of service is that the Sisters of Charity Halifax continue to selflessly address the same core needs of communities amidst changing societies and environments. Kull said certain events in history, such as the Second Vatican Council, have allowed for a focus on more specific issues by the Sisters.

“It gave us a little more freedom to choose places where we might go and needs that we might respond to,” she said. “We have had people do campus ministry, prison ministry, work at houses for abused women and anti-trafficking work. We have also gotten very involved with climate and Earth issues including global debt, international and water issues… It’s allowed us to do so much.” 

There is so much still to celebrate despite a decline in active Sisters within the congregation in recent years. There are currently 177 members in both Canada and the United States that are engaged in ministry, with the peak in numbers coming in 1966 with over 1,600 members. 

Still, both Martin and Kull confirm that the spirit of compassionate service will continue to be reflected for the rest of their lives as well as long after they are gone, a sentiment of coming to completion during 2020’s general chapter meeting.  

“It was at that meeting where we looked at these statistics and at that chapter, we made a very conscious decision that we would come to completion (with our life of service). None of us choose when we’re going to be born and what era of history we live in, but I truly believe this is our moment,” Kull said. “As we consciously come to completion so peacefully and publicly, that’s a gift to today’s society, we are saying that this is who we are and this is what we’re going to do.”

“Until our very last breath,” Martin added. 

To commemorate the date that the first Sisters arrived in Halifax, a Liturgy of Thanksgiving will be held May 11 at 12:15 pm at St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Halifax. Archbishop Brian Dunn will preside with a reception to follow. 

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