March 23, 2015

OTTAWA – When Sister Lorraine Desjardins was growing up in Kapuskasing, Ont., she yearned to enter religious life but faced one major obstacle: her parents.

An only child, the superior general of the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa recalled a warm, God-filled family life.

Desjardins had felt the stirrings of a religious call from the time she was eight or nine years old.

The Sisters of Charity taught at the elementary school she attended, and Desjardins early on wanted to be a religion teacher or a teaching religious.

The call intensified when she left for Ottawa to attend a high school run by the sisters. When she reached Grade 12 she asked her parents if she could join the congregation.

They refused. They said she needed more time to discern whether it was God calling her; she was still young and she had her life ahead of her. As well, they said, "You will be leaving us. Who will give us grandchildren?"

Her prayers to change their hearts were answered in a dramatic way.

It was 1959, the year of the beatification of St. Margaret D'Youville, the founder of the Grey Nuns, to whom Desjardins had a special devotion.

Inside the boarding school stood a statue of D'Youville. Every time Desjardins passed, she said a short prayer. "I would just stop in front of the statue and say, 'If you want me to be your daughter, do something.'"

Then the answer came. Her mother phoned to tell her that she was pregnant.

By the time she graduated in June, her parents "were reconciled to the idea they could let me go."

"I joined Aug. 1, 1959. My brother was born on the 23rd of the same month. He gave them grandchildren."

Her life with the order has been fulfilling. Desjardins spent 17 years in Africa, serving in Lesotho, Malawi and Zambia.

"It was a dream come true at least for becoming a teacher sister and giving my whole life to Jesus," she said. "To become a missionary in Africa, this desire grew in me only after I was a member of the congregation."

At first, it wasn't easy. "There's a culture shock and a big need for adaptation," she said.

Today, the order has more vocations in Africa than in North America, she said.

Now serving her 11th year as general superior, Desjardins says the average age of the order's 270 North American sisters is 81. The rest of its more than 500 members are in mission countries and much younger.

She remains hopeful about vocations.

"Although there seem to be fewer people answering the call for a dedicated religious life today, God still calls and accompanies young people in their vocation and mission for the Church and the world."