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.

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.

HAVANA, CUBA - In Old Havana, time seems to stand still. Amidst the stunning architecture and vintage cars rolling along cobblestone streets, visitors are shown a glimpse of a different world at this UNESCO World Heritage site.

But what is striking about the old city is the many signs of Catholicism in the capital of one of the few remaining communist nations in the world. It is evident immediately upon arrival in Havana. Driving past the bay, we saw the white marble Christ of Havana statue on a hilltop. There was no stopping, however, as the 20-metre work of art was under construction.

Then we made our way into the city, down the narrow walkways into the heart of Old Havana.What do we pass but a stone cross towering overhead, smack dab in the middle of the sidewalk — a sign of what’s to come.

Our tour began at the Basilica and Monastery of St. Francis of Assisi. Built at the tail end of the 16th century for the Franciscan community, its religious use was discontinued in the mid-1760s after Cuba reverted to Spanish rule following a brief two years under British rule. Attached to a 40-metre bell tower, the basilica functions today as a museum and concert hall. Inside, there is a glass statue of Jesus that was given to former Cuban president Fidel Castro by Blessed Mother Teresa, our tour guide tells us.

Walking into the picturesque “Hostal Valencia,” a rustic bed and breakfast established by Spanish settlers, there is a large portrait of Castro (or El Comandante, as locals call him). And less than a half-metre away, a small illuminated statue of Mother Mary holding baby Jesus in a glass case caught my eye. To an outsider, it seems contradictory to have these two symbols so close. Then again, the Blessed Virgin and the dictator both have devotees in this communist state. The city’s charm is encapsulated here, with vines growing from the upper balcony of a large courtyard where visitors eat at tables on the ground level.

Continuing along our route, El Templete comes into view, a tiny neoclassical chapel partially covered by a massive ceiba tree. It was erected on the spot where Havana’s first Mass was held under the same kind of tree in the 1500s. Every Nov. 16, Habaneros (residents of Havana) celebrate the anniversary of the first Mass along with the first town council of San Cristobal de la Habana.

A little farther along is the Museum of the City, which used to be the Captain General’s Palace, seat of the Spanish governments on the island from 1791 to 1898. From 1899 until 1902, the U.S. military governors were based here, and during the first two decades of the 20th century the building briefly became the presidential palace. Half of it was used for official business and the other half as a residence. But before it served these purposes, this was the site of Havana’s original church, the Parroquial Mayor, with relics from its past on display in the lower chambers. Among these relics are an old pew, a Gospel adorned in gold, a monstrance decorated in coral and a sculpture of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns.
Fittingly enough, the finale was the iconic cathedral of Havana that has not one name, but two. Officially called the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception, it’s better known as the Cathedral of St. Christopher, Havana’s patron saint. Before being shipped off to the cathedral in Seville, Spain, the bones of Christopher Columbus lay here. On either side of the baroque facade are bell towers, one of which is visibly larger, creating an intentional asymmetry. Tourists shuffle about the square outside, staring in awe at the grandiose testament to the faith.

Amidst the multitude of sights in Old Havana, such as the Ambos Mundos Hotel where American writer Ernest Hemingway penned many of his classics, and Morro Castle that guards the entrance to Havana Bay, Catholic icons are scattered. They play a prominent role in giving Habana Vieja its unique character.

Six months after Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba and spoke out for stronger religious freedom for Catholics, it was interesting to see the religiosity inherent in the city’s many features. Indeed, it is a country of contrasts. Although the anti-religious views of Marxism have clearly had a powerful impact on the country, Cuba’s Catholic roots remain.

TORONTO - As the new chaplain at the Newman Centre, Fr. Chris Cauchi is looking forward to serving the spiritual needs of students at the University of Toronto.

“Newman is such a vibrant place,” Cauchi told The Catholic Register. “I’d like to first observe what’s going on, learn, and I’m very blessed I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Many priests and laypeople before me have already laid the foundation.

“My hope is to be able to nourish and support that growth that is going on here.”

Cauchi moved into the Newman Centre June 27, taking the reigns from Fr. Michael Machacek. He’ll also serve as pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, located just next door to the Newman Centre.

Cauchi, who turned 32 on Aug. 11, was first assigned to be associate pastor at St. Barnabas parish in Scarborough, where he helped co-ordinate the youth ministry. When he moved to St. Michael’s Cathedral two years later, he was involved with the young adult ministry along with being the assistant chaplain for Ryerson chaplaincy.

Born in Canada, his family decided to move to its native Malta when he was three years old. It was in Malta where he entered the seminary.

“We have the policy of the internship year,” said Cauchi. “We have to do it outside of the diocese, so being Canadian, I thought it would be good to do it here.”

He returned to Malta for his theology but his diocese of Gozo has a policy where you must serve abroad for at least two years after ordination.

“So in my case I came here and from two years it became seven and I’m still here. And I like it.”

His appointment to Newman came as a surprise, he said.

“But I’m very glad to be here.”

His role will comprise three components: the parish, the residency formation program and the chaplaincy outreach to students, he said.

“I want to emphasize my mission would be to try to make justice with the three of them.”

The challenges of the job will reflect the challenges of every Catholic, said Cauchi.

“How can we remain rooted in the tradition of the Church? How can we grow personally and communally in our relationship with Christ? How is Christ calling this community to leave behind what’s familiar and go to the unfamiliar territory that Christ may want us to be?

“These are some questions that every believer needs to focus on, that our community is focusing on. And I think the Holy Spirit will continue to guide this community and this process of change.”

Two years can really change a person. Faith-wise, anyway.

During my time as Youth Editor, I have been blessed with the opportunity to go to World Youth Day in Madrid to see the Pope in person. I’ve read YOUCAT: The Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church. I’ve met with a spiritual director a couple times. I even hopped on a plane and travelled to Connecticut for a retreat with the Sisters of Life. But what is more astounding (to me, anyway) is the fact that I now like praise and worship music, even uploading some of these songs onto my iPod.

This is all a pretty big deal for me. I think things started changing after World Youth Day. Being in a climate where everyone was so open about their faith was really strange and amazing. Whereas before that the Catholic and non-Catholic worlds were always separate to me, for once, they were blended together. There was no filter.

I remember throwing around the term “faith journey” now and then over the years, but I don’t think I truly understood the term until this past year, when I was actually actively on one.

To be open to God isn’t an easy task. To have a genuine desire to listen is equally as challenging because it’s easier not to try to listen. But I’ve learned to try to be open, come what may.

My spiritual director shared a Bible verse from Jeremiah with me, and it has given me much food for thought: “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to give you a future with hope... when you search for me you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord.”

This really stuck with me. Once I heard it, I wanted to hear it again. It was encouraging, exciting.

Through covering the Catholic community and getting to know many faith-filled people, I’ve learned a lot. We are the company we keep, after all.

YOUCAT was really helpful, too. Included in our pilgrim backpacks at World Youth Day (although you can buy them at Catholic bookstores, too), sections range from “What We Believe” to “How We Should Pray” to “How We Are to Have Life in Christ.” It has been a great resource for me and helped me to understand the basic tenets of the faith, which I assumed I knew.

The answer to the question, “Why do we need faith and the sacraments in order to live a good, upright life?” is one of the most relatable parts of the book.

“If we were to rely only on ourselves and our own strength, we would not get far in our attempts to be good,” it reads. “Through faith, we discover that we are God’s children and that God makes us strong.”

If I’ve learned one thing, it’s to trust in God. It sounds easy, but it’s surprisingly hard to let go and do. For now, I’ll just keep trying.

TORONTO - On the feast day of Jesus' grandparents, a eucharistic celebration in honour of new Bishop Wayne Kirkpatrick was held at St. Michael's Cathedral July 26, where his own grandparents were married about 100 years ago.