Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo, The Catholic Register

Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo, The Catholic Register

Vanessa is a communications coordinator in the Office of Public Relations and Communications for the Archdiocese of Toronto and former reporter and youth editor for The Catholic Register. 

You can follow her on twitter @V_Santilli.

MARKHAM, ONT. - After a four-year process, and the amalgamation of four congregations, the Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada have emerged.

“We have shifted in our identity from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Hamilton, London, Peterborough and Pembroke and now we are the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada,” said Sr. Margo Ritchie, speaking via telephone from the order’s chapter in Markham, Ont., which ran from Nov. 18-24.

“Together, we feel that we can engage the crucial issues in a way that transforms us and the systems in our world and we could perhaps have a larger voice.”

The move actually brings the Sisters of St. Joseph closer to their origins, when there was only one congregation.

“So it’s a natural impulse for becoming one again. But there was an emerging energy in all of us to do something new and we felt we could be that better together.”

Ritchie believes the change will expand the sisters’ consciousness of who they are.

“And some of us may make choices to move if there is a particular job opening in another neighbourhood.”
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto and of Sault Ste. Marie were also a part of the four-year process but decided it was best for them to not take part in the amalgamation at this time.

That said, “All the congregations will continue to work together,” said Ritchie.

With approximately 300 sisters in the newly formed congregation, 137 sisters were in attendance at the chapter.

“People were very eager to be part of this new moment.”

At press time, the chapter had only undergone its initial two days which began exploring the direction the unified sisters will head in for the next four years. The “coalescing of various voices” discussed ecological justice, the growing disparity between the rich and the poor and indigenous rights, said Ritchie.

Sr. Sue Wilson said the conversation focused on the interconnected nature of the sisters’ lives.

“No matter what issue we try to take hold of — whether it’s poverty or environmental damage — you start to see how the issue is connected with our social systems, our economic systems, our political systems and environmental systems,” said Wilson. “So given the interconnected nature, we really see a lot of value in contemplative practice to get at that level of interconnection.”

Through this, the sisters will be better able to see root causes of injustice and how to bring about systemic change, she added.

Sr. Joyce Murray said the discussion tried to better understand what the needs of today mean for the ministry and mission of the sisters.

“We have always tried to respond to the needs around us at the moment and have always been conscious of currents in our world,” said Murray.

One of the objectives of the chapter is to formulate a new direction statement, said Ritchie.

“We’re really clear we don’t want a nice statement that gets framed and put on a wall,” she said. “We want to challenge ourselves.”

Ritchie, who held the position of congregational leader for the Sisters of St. Joseph of London as of press time, said the congregational leadership circle of five women was to be elected during the chapter, after The Register’s press time.

For most of us, stilling the mind seems too unproductive to be a good idea. But then again, it’s an attractive idea.

“Who do you say I am?” is the burning question Jesus asks His disciples in chapter nine of the Gospel of Luke. In Benedictine Dom Laurence Freeman’s 75-page book The Goal of Life, the author seeks to illustrate how Christian meditation can help us come up with our own answer.

Freeman, the director of The World Community for Christian Meditation, is essentially giving readers a road map to happiness via the mind and spirit, should they choose to follow his lead.

But first he debunks the widely held misconception that meditation is a “get-away-from-it-all narcissistic indulgence” à la Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling Eat, Pray, Love. Instead, it is “the practice of silence and stillness, of non-action beyond thought and imagination.” It’s also not a leisure activity. It’s hard work.

Meditation is the work we do to accept the gift of contemplation which is already given and present in the heart, writes Freeman.

The goal of life — heaven — is to know who we are. But to figure this out we must be able to say who Jesus is. If you’re willing to give the gift of total self, you may one day be able to answer that question. He is asking no small feat.

The book is small, but don’t be deceived. You’re in for some heavy reading. It’s also chock full of strong declarations and promises. “The humanity of Jesus and His relationship to the universe come to be experienced from within.”

Never having meditated, I read the book with an open mind. But how does one meditate? It takes a while to get to that. In fact, the majority of the book is spent discussing what it is and why one would seek to achieve Christian enlightenment, with only a few pages dedicated to the how.

Essentially, you are to sit upright and breathe calmly. Then, close your eyes and in your mind and heart repeat the word “maranatha.” It’s an Aramaic word he recommends to beginners which means “Come Lord. Come Lord Jesus.”

But it’s not quite so easy to clear your mind of your busy life. Freeman admits this and addresses the very real challenges of doing anything so counter-cultural.

To meditate, we must accept Jesus’ challenge to go beyond the fear of letting go of our favourite anxieties, the ones we’ve grown accustomed to, along with getting over our fear of peace. “The practice of meditation is a way of applying His teaching on prayer; it proves through experience that the human mind can indeed choose not to worry.”

The book successfully breaks down preconceived notions about what meditation is. Freeman shows us instead a holistic path of prayer.

So, who is Jesus? Freeman isn’t going to put it in words for you. The real goal of Christian meditation is an encounter with Jesus that goes beyond words and tidy definitions. It’s a reality that has to be felt in your heart as well as your mind. When you get it, Jesus is there in everyday life, in all the distractions and tedium of the day and in the dreams that light the still mind before dawn. Christian meditation is just one more tool to be implemented on the neverending journey of faith.

TORONTO  - Struggling with parish finances, Fr. Joseph Tap Van Tran needed money for restorations at St. Cecilia’s Church in Toronto’s west end. His prayers were answered through substantial bequests from various parishioners totalling approximately $800,000.

Due to this generosity, the parish is getting a new roof along with exterior work, such as brick work on external walls, stone work around the windows and restoration of the front stairs.

Nestled between houses near High Park Avenue in the Junction, the church is immersed in scaffolding, a testament to the help of bequests.

“It’s a blessing that we got the donations,” said Tran, pastor at St. Cecilia’s Church and The Mission of the Vietnamese Martyrs, a community that shares the parish.

“St. Cecilia’s is not a rich parish. The financial resources are very limited. We would not be able to repair the roof, which is a major renovation, but with the money from the bequests we are able to do it.”

One particularly large bequest came in the form of a house, along with all of its contents, said Tran. Everything was sold and the funds are being given to the parish.

Upon hearing about the large bequests from members of the community, Tran said he felt joy and a strong sense of thankfulness to both God and the donors.

“As Catholics, we know the church is the house of God,” he said. “It’s the place we experience God’s love and experience His presence in a special way.”

Established in 1895, St. Cecilia’s is a fairly old parish, said Quentin Schesnuick, manager of planning giving and personal gifts at ShareLife.

For parishes that need major work done, bequests can go a long way.

“You get a few gifts in your will and what happens is the parishes can go ahead and do the projects and (renovations) to repair the parishes for the next generation,” he said.

TORONTO - Quentin Schesnuik was visiting St. Cecilia’s Church for an estate planning presentation when he spotted a little girl giving a leaf to the pastor. Fr. Joseph Tap Van Tran thanked her for the leaf, blessed her and kept the gift.

“At the moment she gave it to him, she meant it with all sincerity,” said Schesnuik, manager of planned giving and personal gifts for ShareLife, the charitable fundraising arm of the archdiocese of Toronto.

Similarly, whenever somebody puts the Church in their will, they should mirror this sincerity, he said.

“At the end of the day, it should be about how you make that gift… A lot of times people use their will to make the gift they always wanted to in life but just never thought they could.”

Any gift left to ShareLife in a will is turned into cash which lands in the ShareLife Legacy for Life Endowment Fund, said Schesnuik.

“An endowment is an investment that’s set aside for the long-term support of ShareLife,” he said. “Within the endowment, the principle is protected… And the principle is used to generate income to fund ShareLife programs.”
As the endowment grows, it strengthens the ShareLife allocations as a whole, he adds.

“The income that the endowment generates goes into general funding, so in a very real sense, the money is used to help fund all ShareLife agencies and grant recipients.”

The endowment fund currently sits at $2.8 million. Last year, it generated about $80,000 in income, said Schesnuik.

“Sometimes you could have a will where someone says, ‘I have a Harley Davidson and I want it to go to ShareLife.’ In that case, the estate trustee would contact us and we’d work with them, take possession of the Harley Davidson, sell it and use the proceeds to put in the endowment.”

When a person decides they’d like to donate to ShareLife, their lawyer contacts ShareLife and asks for their legal title, said Schesnuik.

“Knowing the proper legal title is really important because the law is all about language and the interpretation of language,” he said. By knowing this, the lawyer knows exactly where to direct the funds. ShareLife’s legal title is The ShareLife Trust.

One hundred per cent of the proceeds bequeathed to ShareLife support ShareLife, adds Schesnuik.

But your estate doesn’t just mean your house, it means your total assets.

“It’s your assets minus your liabilities,” said Schesnuik. “If somebody has more liabilities than assets, there won’t be anything left to distribute.”

He emphasizes that it’s not necessarily about the amount left behind.

“God loves a cheerful giver, and so, it’s in that spirit I think that person should make a cheerful gift.”

TORONTO - When Angela Farrell was unsure about a career change, she turned for guidance to the sisters at the Notre Dame convent in Toronto.

“I think of the convent as the North Star,” she said. “This is the true north and you orient from there.”

So she is saddened now to learn that her North Star will soon be dark. After 60 years, the convent on Kingston Road in Toronto’s east end is closing.

The packing has already begun and the nuns, several in their 80s, are to all be moved by next August, although the date is not set in stone, says Sr. Eileen Power. She is clear the sisters are not leaving Toronto, but will cease to live in community as they move to other locations in the city.

“We have been engaged in a process of long-term planning for some time now in our congregation and in our province and many other communities are doing this too,” said Power, the local house leader. “The location is no longer meeting our housing needs.”

The convent and property will be sold but Power said she has no idea who the buyer will be.

“Only God knows that right now,” she said.

The convent has housed up to 20 people but is currently home to just 11 sisters, some of whom have lived there more than 40 years. The youngest is in her early 40s but most are retired. There are about two dozen Notre Dame sisters living in Toronto, said Power.

“The sisters here are looking to the future with hope and courage and they are hearing God’s call in this,” she said.

When Farrell was growing up in the neighbourhood, the convent was a much busier place. The Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame provided teachers for many east-end Catholic schools and, in 1941, founded Notre Dame High School, which still operates nearby the convent. Farrell almost always lived close to the sisters. A graduate of Notre Dame, she has taught religion and belonged to the chaplaincy team at the school the past 12 years.

“My whole growing up was shaped by the presence of the sisters and there was always a sense of structure and security in knowing they were there,” she said.

The order has been in Toronto for 80 years. The first nuns arrived in 1932 at the invitation of Archbishop Neil McNeil to bolster Toronto’s Catholic teaching community, originally settling in a convent near St. Brigid’s Church. Over the years, the sisters taught in more than 20 elementary schools and several high schools. They’ve also been active in parishes through outreach to the poor, catechetics, retreats and social justice initiatives.

As their numbers increased, and after Notre Dame High School was built, the sisters obtained a plot of land near the school for a convent. It has been occupied since 1952 but, with vocations in dramatic decline, some difficult decisions were required.

“I think most families experience this,” Power said. “The kids grow up and move away and three or four bedrooms are empty and the parents say, ‘We need to do something now.’ We don’t have a lot of younger people at the moment here in Toronto.”

Power said it is important that the order prudently manage its resources.

“We pool our resources as sisters and then we support people who are doing other ministries,” she said, highlighting activities for social justice in Central America, Africa, Japan, France, the United States, as well as across Canada.

Nancy Devitt-Tremblay, a Notre Dame graduate (class of 1974), says the sisters gave the incredible gift of education to her mother’s generation.

“My mother grew up in an inner-city parish at a time when her brothers didn’t go to high school,” said Devitt-Tremblay, a teacher at Senator O’Connor College School. “If Notre Dame hadn’t opened, she probably wouldn’t have had a high school education.”

Ursula Thomson was a part of that generation. One of 16 members of the first graduating class in 1944, she keeps in touch with Notre Dame nuns almost 70 years later. She is grateful for the kindness, intelligence and devotion of the sisters.

The relocation process for the 11 nuns still in the convent will be co-ordinated between the leadership and administrative team in Halifax, Power said.

TORONTO - To celebrate the Year of Faith, the archdiocese of Toronto’s office of formation for discipleship has undertaken its most focused effort at faith formation to date.

“This is an opportunity in this year for people to pause and to consider the role of faith in our own lives and why we are eager to share that faith with other people,” said Bill Targett, director of the office of formation for discipleship.

Targett said the archdiocese will be offering 18 programs across the archdiocese for the Year of Faith, which kicked off Oct. 11, alongside the 50th anniversary of the opening of Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and ends Nov. 24, 2013, on the feast of Christ the King.

“They range from single night workshops to look at one topic up to and including an eight-part series,” said Targett. “And then, in between those extremes, there’s a whole variety of other workshops.”

Topics vary from Catholic social teaching and basic teachings of the Catholic Church to lectio divina and prayer. Free of charge, the hosting parishes will become “regional centres of formation,” said Targett.

There will be three rotations of the same workshops in the fall, winter and spring at different locations to geographically accommodate as many people as possible, he added.

“The Year of Faith has been a long time coming,” said Targett. “John Paul II was speaking about it already in the early ’90s and for us, it’s exciting that it’s finally here. And we look forward to contributing whatever we can to helping to replant the Gospel in the West.”

Targett said he regards parishioners as the “frontline of people.”

“If we can help convince them of the important role that faith has in their lives, I think they’re the best example to spread that information through a wider community so that people who are not of faith look at a Catholic and say, ‘What is it about that person that makes them happy as they are?’”

For the younger crowd, the archdiocese of Toronto’s Office of Catholic Youth will be running catechetical events based on the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church and YOUCAT: The Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church.

A solemn opening Mass to launch the Year of Faith will be celebrated by Cardinal Thomas Collins Oct. 14 at St. Paul’s Basilica in Toronto. In addition, Collins will be dedicating this year’s lectio divina programs to a biblical understanding of faith.

For more information on the office of formation for discipleship’s Year of Faith workshops, see

(UPDATED 17/10/2012)

TORONTO - It’s not common knowledge the Catholic Church in Toronto originally owned a plot of land at the northeast corner of George and Adelaide Streets. At that time in 1806, Toronto, then called York, had a Catholic population of about 37 people. Nor do most people know the chapel built on this spot was taken over by soldiers during the War of 1812. The land was eventually sold in order to buy the property where St. Paul’s Basilica stands today.

“The only research is in the deeds to the land which was bought by a priest and it was recorded there to be left entrusted to the Roman Catholic Church,” said Paul Vaculik, a ROMwalks volunteer tour guide.

On Oct. 7, more than 60 people gathered to take part in the Sacred Stones & Steeples ROMwalks guided tour, led by volunteers of the Royal Ontario Museum. The two-hour walk covered landmark religious buildings in Toronto at the tine of the War of 1812, whose bicentennial takes place this year, as well as general historical factoids as time marched onwards.

Along with the origins of St. Michael’s Cathedral, the tour also stopped at St. James Cathedral, Metropolitan United Church, Mackenzie House, St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church and the First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Toronto.

St. Michael’s Cathedral, the oldest church on the tour, was built to accommodate the Catholic population which was growing along with the overall population of Toronto, said Vaculik. St. Paul’s, the first Catholic church in Toronto, was originally fairly small, unlike the basilica Torontonians know today.

“The population really grew because of the famine in Ireland,” he said. “The population of Toronto was 20,000 and, within five months, 38,000 Irish came over.”

Unlike the Anglicans, the Catholic Church’s main base wasn’t the affluent. It was the labourers.

“When they started building around 1847, it was like a barn-raising,” said Vaculik. “A lot of the labourers contributed their labour to building the church so they excavated the land and they started to build the church.”

The base material was ballast material from ships, he added. Bishop Michael Power received a lot of flak for choosing St. Michael’s location, Vaculik said. “It was at the northern end of Toronto and it was starting to get into the boonies, but now it’s well in the heart of Toronto.”

Vaculik also pointed out the often overlooked fact that the galero of Cardinal James McGuigan is hanging above the altar at St. Michael’s Cathedral.

“The tradition was that when the cardinal’s received their hat when they were made cardinals, when they died they would hang their hat up by the ceiling (until) it rotted and fell down.”

This practice has been discontinued, and so, the galero of McGuigan will be the last to hang in the cathedral, he said.

Amidst a backdrop of organ practice, the group was led into the Anglican St. James Cathedral, where a white bust of Bishop John Strachan greeted visitors.

A major influence in Toronto, Strachan played a role in the 1813 surrender of York, negotiating directly with the Americans despite having no official diplomatic authority. In the area of education, Strachan was responsible for establishing King’s College at the University of Toronto.

Unbeknownst to the average churchgoer, the Gothic architecture of the cathedral displays windows in groupings of three to represent the Holy Trinity, said Vaculik.

At Metropolitan United Church, another prominent name in post-secondary education in Toronto is mentioned: Methodist minister Egerton Ryerson.

“Ryerson laid down the framework for the educational system as we know it today,” said Vaculik, including the now standard notion that teachers must complete training colleges.

For more on ROMwalks tours, see


The Catechism of the Catholic Church is the best comprehensive presentation of the Catholic faith in hundreds of years, said Vancouver Archbishop Michael Miller.

"It's the distillation of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council," said Miller.

The 20th anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church runs parallel to the Year of Faith, which kicked off Oct. 11.

Today, the catechism is used in various settings, including RCIA programs, upper- level high school or college courses, study groups and as a personal reference tool, said Miller.

"And references are constantly made to it in books that you read on homiletics and preaching."

It's an important resource because it brings together the core teachings of the Catholic Church under three categories: the Church's doctrinal positions, Christian practices and worship, said Michael Attridge, a theology professor at Toronto's University of St. Michael's College.

But if people believe the only thing necessary to live a good, full Catholic life is to read the catechism, that is a downside, said Attridge.

"People need to study the Bible, they need to involve themselves in parish organizations, organizations that promote social justice, they need to educate themselves by going to theological school and to ask questions that relate to faith and Christian living."

Since its creation, the publications service of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) has sold 222,787 copies of the catechism in English and French, said René Laprise, director of media relations for the CCCB. In addition, 45,673 copies of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church have been sold through the CCCB.

"A number of copies have been sold through Canadian bookstores and direct sales from publishers in the United States and France, although we have no way of determining how many," said Laprise.

Miller added that in the archdiocese of Vancouver, there's currently a big push on YOUCAT: The Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church.

"We've distributed more than 10,000 copies of YOUCAT to parishes because it's in some ways far more accessible and user-friendly for the level of knowledge of religion that most people have."

Had it not been for the anniversary of the catechism, Miller doesn't think the arch-diocese would have come up with such an initiative. And while the catechism is the standard, he said he believes YOUCAT is more in tune to how people today learn and read.

"As much as we might lament the loss — as I do — of plunging through big books, most people today read in small bits and they're used to more pictorial representations... It's just the way things are. I think it's far more effective."


TORONTO - Dr. Karen Stel made the “wonderful discovery” of natural family planning during her medical residency and to this day the Toronto doctor refuses to prescribe birth control pills. Instead, she recommends the Billings Ovulation Method of natural family planning to her patients.

“It’s a a co-operative way of working with your body the way that God designed it,” said Stel. “To be able to control fertility is an amazing thing that God has given us.”

Stel was a participant at a Sept. 28 Billings Ovulation Method workshop for medical professionals in Toronto. She’d come to hear Dr. Mary Martin, of the Billings Centre for Fertility and Reproductive Medicine in Oklahoma City, who was in Toronto at the invitation of the Natural Family Planning Association, funded by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto.

But the workshops had a low turnout, with just five health professionals attending the breakfast session and eight at the lunch session. Stel, a general practitioner, was the only medical doctor to attend. Participants included Billings teachers, homeopaths, naturopathic doctors, nurses and a social worker.

The Billings Method teaches couples to observe the natural biological signs of female fertility and use that knowledge to postpone or achieve pregnancy, said Martin.

Christian Elia, acting executive director of the Natural Family Planning Association which organized the event, said the workshops were open for all medical professionals to attend.

“I’m disappointed but I’m constantly disappointed that more doctors don’t take the Billings Ovulation Method seriously despite the fact that it’s been around for decades and it’s already used successfully by millions of people around the world,” he said.

Elia said the majority of medical professionals in Toronto are not receptive to the Billings Method.

“It wasn’t part of their training so… most doctors just feel more comfortable doing what they’ve been told which usually involves prescribing birth control pills.”

To reverse that, Stel believes natural family planning should be taught in medical schools.

Struggling with the issue of contraception during her residency at Queen’s University, Stel got in touch with the natural family planning community in Kingston, Ont., and eventually carried out a research project on the efficacy of the Billings Method as compared to contraception.

“I presented in 2001 to my colleagues at Queen’s and received very good feedback,” said Stel, an evangelical Christian. “It was enough to convince me that I could practise medicine with integrity.”

But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Recently, a patient filed a complaint with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario when Stel refused to prescribe birth control. It took about eight months to settle, but in the end, the college voted in her favour.

“I’ve had to be careful after that but at the same time it doesn’t change my conviction. If anything, it affirms it. If you’re getting opposition, they say you’re doing something right.”

Similarly, Martin said a lot of Catholic physicians don’t know how to practise gynecology without prescribing pills. She stopped promoting birth control after a conversion experience. For her penance, a priest made her research whether the pill can cause miscarriages and induce abortions. She discovered this was a possibility.

“I had learned in medical school that there was that potential,” she said. “But I had been assured by the drug companies over the years that was a very uncommon thing.”

By 1999, she had stopped prescribing birth control. She was worried her clients would leave.

“It was like standing on the precipice with my toes curled over the edge and my arms spread out saying, ‘Okay, God, catch me if I fall.’ And He did.”

Rose Heron, program director of the Natural Family Planning Association, said doctors are often introduced to the Billings Method by patients who practise the Billings Method.

“Keep in mind that we live in a society where, if a couple is trying to achieve pregnancy and they don’t within the prescribed time, many doctors just send you for in-vitro fertilization. So they move onto technological means. And many couples are looking for an alternative to that.”

Pauline MacCarthy Phelps, a visiting Billings co-ordinator from Trinidad and Tobago, says advertising of the Billings Method must be improved in order to attract more people to the option.

“It’s not common,” she said. “What’s common is contraception. Nobody wants to have 10 children and contraception is what they know about and it’s popular.”

Lori Canlas, a social worker and psychotherapist, also believes Billings needs to be promoted further. But what struck her was the negative impact of contraception on women’s health.

“It’s also highly interesting that doctors highly prescribe contraception without knowing other alternatives… There is an option for them to choose something more natural.”

Stel remains optimistic that medical professionals will become more open to natural family planning.

“They respect me for this… It will just take more doctors (to show others). And doctors that have time. The reality right now is that I don’t have time. But I do, wherever I can.”

TORONTO - Discernment has many different paths. Last Lent, my own personal discernment took me on Lenten Listening: A Busy Person’s Retreat run by Faith Connections, Regis College and the Toronto Area Vocation Directors Association. I came home with more than I bargained for but just what I needed.

Seriously contemplating whether or not I wanted to pursue freelance writing full-time, the retreat paired me up with a spiritual director in my area with whom I visited three times over the course of six weeks. Never having received any sort of formal spiritual direction before, I went into the sessions hoping to have a clearer idea of whether this was what I truly wanted.