Sisters put money to work for justice

Sr. Catherine Donnelly

Sr. Catherine Donnelly

December 24, 2012

For 90 years, the Sisters of Service have been a quiet, dedicated group of women who changed the lives of many communities, organizations and individuals.

Catherine Donnelly founded the Sisters of Service in 1922 after teaching and nursing the sick in rural Alberta. Having witnessed the lack of spiritual and material resources available to the settlers, she recruited women to come West and help her meet those needs.

The first English-speaking Canadian religious order, the sisters cared for newcomers, helping them remain faithful to their Catholic heritage.

Their garb was a simple grey dress, cloak and hat, rather than the long habit and veil then worn by women religious.

As with so many orders of women, as the times changed, they had to refocus on how best to continue serving others.

"A phenomenon that's affecting a lot of religious communities is the aging of their membership. Religious communities have very different responses to their decline in numbers," said Mike Flynn, board chairman of the Catherine Donnelly Foundation.

Some orders try to incorporate more laywomen into their activities; others attempt to recruit younger members.

The Sisters of Service recognized they would not be able to recruit new members the way they once did. Therefore, they will no longer be an independent order and have recently aligned with the Sisters of St. Joseph in Toronto.

"It made sense to put the community to bed with some dignity. For them, the way to do that was to take their accumulated wealth, and take the charism of their community into the future through the establishment of the Catherine Donnelly Foundation," said Flynn.

Established in 2003, the foundation has a significant endowment that benefits non-profit agencies.

Today, the foundation seeks to honour and build on the faith, dedication and belief in the inherent dignity of the person.


The Catherine Donnelly Foundation aspires to a world that respects and reverences creation, and a world that gives place and voice to the poor. Its mission is motivated by biblical tradition of the "preferential option for the poor" and the principles of economic, social and ecological justice.

The foundation uses the resources provided by the sisters to fund projects in transitional housing, adult education and the environment, Flynn said.

The mission of the foundation is rooted in such values as dignity of the person, spirituality of service, creative ideas, integration and ecological balance.

Past grant recipients have included the Bissell Centre, WINGS of Providence Society, Skyworks Foundation, the David Suzuki Foundation, the Pembina Foundation and the Victoria Immigrant & Refugee Centre Society.

Groups might be granted as little as $10,000 or as much $250,000 per year.


Most foundations operate in a solely responsive manner. That is, organizations submit requests for grant money, and the foundation then allocates the money to the most worthy applicants.

The Catherine Donnelly Foundation has taken a more innovative approach.

"Rather than responding to individual requests, we'll actively seek out groups that have the possibility of making an impact in that area," said Flynn.


Youth homelessness is one issue that the foundation is currently tackling. Instead of giving annual grants, say to a youth shelter, it aims to eliminate youth homelessness in Canada.

Some of the Church's wealth can go to charitable works, but Flynn would prefer to see the money fund positive structural change to help the poor.

"How can we be an effective social change agent in coming to the assistance of those who need help?" said Flynn.

This year, the foundation dispersed nearly $700,000 to 14 organizations across Canada.