Srs. Deana Kohlman and Norma Johnson remember sisters buried in St. Joachim Cemetery.

PHOTO | SR. CAROL PREGNO

Srs. Deana Kohlman and Norma Johnson remember sisters buried in St. Joachim Cemetery.

May 14, 2012
CHRIS MILLER
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

In the early part of the last century, religious sisters worked in the province's schools, hospitals and parishes.

Concerned by the plight of many young women caught up in the ills of society, the Alberta government recognized that the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity would be a good choice to help these women requiring shelter, education and self-worth.

"We came at the request of the Alberta government for the older girls and women in their time of need. That was the crux of it all. That was the main reason we came to Edmonton," said Sister Norma Johnson, a long-time Edmonton sister who now lives in the U.S.

Two sisters from the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, both from Pittsburgh, arrived in Edmonton on April 22, 1912. Three more arrived soon after. Their official date of foundation is recorded as June 15, when the first Mass was celebrated.

Those early sisters' home was on 111th Street near the original site of the Misericordia Hospital. The house consisted of three cottages joined together. Within a few days of arriving in their new home, 20 older teenage girls were placed in their care by government officials. Caring for these errant girls was the early ministry for the sisters in Edmonton.

Since then, 67 religious sisters from the order have served in the Edmonton Archdiocese.

One hundred years later, 10 sisters from the U.S. Province of the order - four from Dallas and six from Pittsburgh - came to Edmonton to celebrate the milestone. The only sister who remains in Edmonton is Sister Kathleen Miller.

"Really our main focus in our whole life was to be available for the signs of the times," said Johnson. "Our ministries always changed over the years."

A highlight of the trip involved visiting the cemeteries where their sisters were buried. At St. Joachim Cemetery, the five founding sisters are buried along with 10 others.

"While the sun shone, the wind was brisk as we gathered in a circle, as women do, to honour these brave and courageous women," said Sister Mary John Franey. "We sang, remembered and prayed on this holy ground. Sometime later we drove on to Holy Cross Cemetery to honour and remember seven more of our deceased sisters."

Saturday, April 21 they observed their 100th anniversary. It was a chance to reflect on their history and their personal experiences in Edmonton. They had a twofold ministry, working with the older girls and later with younger orphans.

WAIFS AND ORPHANS

"Because of the Spanish flu and the First World War, there were some children who were neglected and, in a sense, became orphans. Situations came up where the sisters were asked in dire circumstances to look after some of these little girls," said Johnson.

In September 1921, an elementary school was established at the residence for the education of the children under the sisters' care.

Over the years, the sisters changed residences for various reasons. In 1928, through the assistance of many benefactors, the sisters moved to 40 acres of land in the Forest Heights neighbourhood that had been donated by J.D. O'Connell. The sisters cared for 93 small children in Primrose Place, what is now Villa Vianney, a retirement home for priests.

In the 1950s, a monastery, convent and residence were built. Changes to the new buildings in the 1960s included offices, classrooms, a large swimming pool and four cottage-style homes for the older girls.

By the 1970s, as foster homes became the trend, the need for an orphanage disappeared. Instead, the sisters focused their attention on helping struggling families who sought private placements for their children.

With changing government regulations, they used part of their empty space to reach out to cancer patients and their families, who were either receiving treatment or waiting for a bed at the Cross Cancer Clinic.

MET DIFFERENT NEEDS

"We didn't have the vocations anymore. We went out into parishes and we taught in schools, and we went on different committees," said Johnson.

In 1988 they donated their land and buildings to the archdiocese. Where they lived for all those years became what is now the Catholic Pastoral Centre and eventually the home of St. Joseph Seminary and Newman Theological College.

"It was important to us that the property would always be there for the Church, and that's why we gave it to the archdiocese. They made their own plans for the buildings, and it's grown since then," said Johnson.

On their recent visit to Edmonton, the sisters attended a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Richard Smith in the seminary chapel. They gave him a set of the writings of their founder, St. John Eudes, for the seminary library. The sisters were delighted to see the same statue of St. John Eudes in the hallway that they had years ago in their chapel.

"The purpose of our visit was to remember our history and also to share with the archdiocese the sacredness of those years that we had for the glory of God. It's a legacy," said Johnson.

"Those were very different times, and it's been a wonderful grace to have that past experience and to be able to be a part of what's happening in today's world."