Mary Phillips always had a strong desire to help the poor and disadvantaged. Even during her childhood in Newfoundland, she witnessed the poverty, and her heart went out to those impoverished families.
"God's call has been a call of love since the time I was 13. He was constantly moving my heart toward the poor. Wherever I went, I wanted to be involved with the poor, and I've found something very beautiful in the poor. In their humility and their weakness, they have so much to teach us," she said.
Phillips, 51, did not know any religious sisters growing up. But now she is on the path to becoming one herself. On March 18 she was accepted as a candidate by the Sisters of Providence, and is venturing along the path to becoming a nun.
"As a sister of Providence, our community was set up to serve the poor. Poverty, I'm learning, is much more than the physical poverty. Each and every person has their own poverty," said Phillips. "Realizing our own poverty, we are able to help others with theirs."
She paraphrased the rule of St. Vincent de Paul, that the poor are our teachers, terribly insensitive, ugly and dirty, unjust and insulting, but we must love them anyway. Maybe through showing love, some day they will forgive us for giving them the food.
Her hope as an eventual sister is to help those marginalized by society: the destitute, alcoholics, drug addicts, single moms and those with depression or mental illnesses.
Phillips was born in the small fishing village of Bonavista, Nlfd., where she was raised until age 19. She has two brothers and a sister. A dutiful Catholic family, they went to daily Mass and prayed the rosary.
She developed her generous spirit through her parents' example, her family always reaching out to the poor. If visitors came to her family's home, her parents gave to them what they could, whether money, food, clothing or tea.
After high school she took a few courses at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She did some volunteer work before moving to Saskatoon. Living with her great aunt and uncle, she took more university courses.
Over the years she remained active in the life of whichever parish she attended. She was involved with pastoral care, and volunteered at a drop-in centre for the homeless in Calgary.
But she still felt God was calling her to something more. About four years ago she went to Calcutta, India, serving six months with the Missionaries of Charity. She did street ministry, and brought sick people to a home for the dying. She worked with children in an orphanage.
"I grew very close to a family that was just across from where I was staying. I used to visit them every evening when I came back from the home for the dying," said Phillips.
The family had travelled from Bangladesh to India because the husband had AIDS and sought treatment. His identification was stolen, unfortunately, and the family was left penniless in Calcutta.
Their home was a piece of plastic thrown over a sidewalk railing to separate them from the street. Despite their poverty, Phillips found in them a beautiful joy. She felt at home sitting with them on the sidewalk.
"After that experience I knew in my heart that I wanted to work with the poor, but more than just being a layperson going to daily Mass and helping the poor. I wanted to give my whole life to God, give him everything," she said.
She went to a Come and See, and was impressed with the Sisters of Providence's service to the poor and with their foundress, Mother Emilie Gamelin.
"She dedicated her whole life to the poor. Also, she had a deep relationship with Our Mother of Sorrows, and she knew what the cross was all about, and what it was to give one's life for God," said Phillips.
Residing at Providence Renewal Centre, she visits the sick sisters in the infirmary. She also helps out twice a week at Anawim, an inner city food bank. She volunteers at Women in Need Growing Stronger (WINGS), for young mothers fleeing from domestic violence.
Eventually she will do her novitiate in Spokane, Wash. There, she will spend a year learning more about the foundress and the history of her order. In the second year, Phillips will experience a mission internationally, getting familiarized with another culture.
After those two years, she will make her first vows of poverty, obedience and chastity. Vows are renewed every year. After three to six years she could then make her final vows.
"A lot has changed since Emilie Gamelin's time in the 1800s. How would she serve here today? I believe she'd be at Anawim, with those coming to the food bank, and she'd be on the streets, caring for the needs there. She would be wherever there is suffering," said Phillips.