Wearing a traditional blue and white habit from head to toe, Sister John Mary is at once peaceful and intense. She warmly welcomes visitors into the quiet convent tucked between a church and a Catholic school in Toronto’s east end.
She sings softly during a midday prayer, one of four she attends each day. “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever.”
Sister John Mary has no possessions and wears a ring to signify her marriage to God. She’s one of the Sisters of Life, a convent of young, ultra-conservative Catholic nuns that was founded in New York in 1991, and arrived in Canada in 2007.
In today’s world, choosing to become a nun obviously takes strong conviction. Choosing to become an orthodox, habit-wearing nun takes something more — that perhaps comes with the passion of youth.
At the age of 29 — young for a nun in modern times — Sister John Mary committed herself to lifelong vows of poverty, obedience and chastity. The habit that she wears, sews and washes herself is a sign of her commitment in what she calls today’s “post-Christian culture.”
“As our culture seeks to exclude God, we are attracted by a radical response to God,” said Sister John Mary.
“It’s very counter-cultural, but there’s a great joy and freedom in the vows that we take in poverty, chastity and obedience. And it’s kind of the opposite of what our culture offers.”
The Sisters of Life is one of the few highly orthodox orders of nuns that are seeing rapid growth in an era when religious life is otherwise declining in North America. Their growth is in part a response to an increasingly secular society as fewer people — especially young people — attend regular religious service or describe themselves as religious.
Marlena Loughheed, a spokesperson for the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, said young people who join religious life today are attracted by the opportunity to live out their faith in a way that is “real and that’s robust.”
“People who go into religious life now are not necessarily going for an easy way of life. They’re looking to just totally lay down their lives in service of the church,” she said.
“If they’re going to make a sacrifice that is that counter-cultural and that extreme, they’re going to go all-in.”
The number of religious sisters in Canada peaked in 1965 at around 66,000, and has been declining ever since. There were only 12,836 nuns and Catholic sisters in Canada in 2015, a drop of more than 20 per cent from 2010, according to the Vatican’s 2015 Statistical Yearbook. Similar decreases have occurred in the United States.
But traditional, ultra-orthodox orders are on the rise.
Insofar as women entering Catholic religious orders in the United States and Canada, to the best of my knowledge, it’s the only thing going,” said Sister Patricia Wittberg, a Georgetown University researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) and a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. She studies new religious communities.
The Sisters of Life more than doubled in size between 2006 and 2016, as did the orthodox Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Mi. The habit-wearing Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia convent in Nashville, Fl., has also grown recently.
From just eight women in 1991, the Sisters of Life now has 102 members, including 13 from Canada. About one-third have joined in the past three years.
The average woman who joins the convent is 25, which is significant. Around the time Sister John Mary joined in 2005, there were more religious sisters over the age of 85 in Canada than under the age of 64, according to statistics from the Canadian Religious Conference.
Sister John Mary once had what she calls a “worldly” life. She studied history and politics at Queen’s University, and completed a Master’s degree at the University of Western Ontario. She continued down a path of professional success, working for a year at the University of Toronto Press before leaving to work for the Holy See at the United Nations in New York City.
It was in New York when Sister John Mary first encountered the Sisters of Life. She returned to Toronto to work for a small public policy consulting firm, but left to join the convent.
“On a personal level, I had everything that the world holds out, and I was happy,” she said. “But I really sensed — it was really a call from God that I responded to, it wasn’t just my idea, but I was searching for something radical.”
Most religious sisters stopped wearing habits after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which encouraged them to grow closer to the communities they served rather than remain distinct from society.
The Sisters of Life, however, have chosen to be distinct. Sister John Mary and the other sisters wear their blue and white habits at all times, whether they’re praying, eating meals or cycling in the nearby park.
It may be one of the keys to their success. New orders that wear habits and “express fidelity” to the Pope were more likely to have grown by more than 50 per cent in the last 10 years, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate reported in 2016.
“The habit is an icon of a radical commitment to a generation that thinks visually and needs visual icons,” said Sister Wittberg.
It also helps that the Sisters of Life have a singular focus — preventing abortions. Their pro-life stance acts as a “recruitment funnel” for the order, she said.
The sisters take four vows that define their lives: poverty, obedience, chastity and to uphold the sacredness of life.
The vow of poverty means the sisters rely entirely on donations. Their habits are the property of the convent, as are any vehicles, the communal cell phone, the credit card, shampoo and furniture.
“It’s the trust that if this work is of the Holy Spirit or of God, he needs to provide, because it’s beyond our human capacity,” Sister John Mary said.
The vow of obedience is to put their faith in the traditional hierarchy of the church. The vow of chastity is not meant to be repressive, explained Sister John Mary, but rather to give sisters the “freedom to love.”
“It’s a reflection of how exalted the Church views marriage and sexuality, that we voluntarily say no to something that is a great good — marriage and family — in order to give our love exclusively to God,” she said.
Their fourth vow, to “protect and enhance the sacredness of life,” is special to the Sisters of Life. In addition to abortion, they also oppose euthanasia, sterilization and artificial contraception.
The Sisters of Life have a mission centre in Toronto’s east end where they work five days a week providing pregnant women and new mothers with the emotional and practical support they need to prevent them from getting abortions — cribs, diapers, food, child care, whatever else is necessary.
Their days are also structured around prayer. The sisters rise at around 5 a.m. for their first two prayers, which take an hour and half. There is the midday pray, another prayer at 4:30 p.m., and a final prayer at 8 or 9 p.m. before they head to bed.
Sister Claudia Marie Den Tandt, the newest sister at the Toronto convent, worked in marketing at the Toronto Dominion Bank before she joined in 2012 at age 32.
Like every Sister of Life, she started out at the New York City convent, where she spent three years. The women start as postulants and graduate to novices after a year, which is when they get their habit and a new religious name. After another two years, they profess their first vows.
“When you encounter something that is so deeply authentic, it’s like, well, I want that,” Sister Claudia said.
Sister Marie Veritas Severin, the youngest sister at the convent, joined when she was 22, after completing a biology degree at the University of Alberta. She organizes the convent’s evangelical trips to parishes and Catholic conferences.
“’We want everyone to know that the Lord loves them and how beautiful and precious they are, for everyone to experience that,” she said.
She said people in modern relationships often “use” one another for pleasure — for example, when they’re using contraception, which is inauthentic.
The Sisters of Life are focused on pro-life causes. Sister Maria Kateri Frazier plays with a young child at the mission centre they run in Toronto. (Peter J. Thompson/National Post)
“I give you my whole self, except my fertility. I’m going to use the other person for pleasure. It looks like a self-gift, but it’s actually not, because I’m holding something back,” she said.
“Our women, when we talk to them, they know when they’ve been used. And there’s an emptiness and a gnawing and something that is not right.”
Still, the Sisters of Life and other convents like them are small compared with long-established orders such as the Sisters of St. Joseph.
Founded in 1650 by six French nuns, the Sisters of St. Joseph were disbanded during the French Revolution — when at least four sisters were guillotined — before it was reborn and spread across North America.The sisters arrived in Toronto in 1851 to care for orphans during the Irish famine.
They work on an array of causes: education, women’s issues, refugees, climate change. But it can be difficult to spot a Sister of St. Joseph. They stopped wearing habits after the Church reforms in the 1960s, although they do wear a symbol engraved with the initials “CSJ” on a necklace or pin.
In Toronto, the Sisters of St. Joseph previously lived at a sprawling 23-hectare residence to house around 500 sisters. As their numbers dwindled — the Toronto convent now has around 100 sisters — they moved to smaller facilities. About 50 live in housing units out in the community, and another 50 live in an assisted-living centre for elderly sisters. Many of the sisters are in their 80s or 90s.
Sister Nida Fe Chavez, one of the youngest sisters, at 57, lives in a communal house in downtown Toronto with five other sisters, including Sister Anne Schenk, the founder of Toronto’s Furniture Bank.
As a novice, Sister Nida spent eight months at a women’s prison in Framingham, Mass., and volunteered at St. Clare’s Residence, a transitional shelter for women in Toronto. She now works as treasurer for the Sisters of St. Joseph.
She says she’s optimistic about the future of the order, even as the numbers shrink. The Sisters of St. Joseph currently have three novices in Ontario convents, with the youngest age 40.
“There could be a pause, and then after that it could grow again. I think as long as there is a need, there will be a religious life. And there will always be a need,” Sister Nida said.
In 2002, an ailing Pope John Paul II visited Toronto for World Youth Day, where he gave a closing mass in Downsview Park to a crowd of 800,000 people. Sister John Mary, whose name was Marisa de Souza at the time, was there.
Sister John Mary had always been devout Catholic, having grown up in a family in Calgary that attended daily Mass. Her brother, Father Raymond de Souza (a contributor to the National Post), joined the priesthood, and she had been considering religious life.
As she listened on that day in Toronto, the Pope seemingly spoke directly to her.
“There are many priests, seminarians and consecrated persons here today. Be close to them and support them,” he told the crowd. “And if, in the depths of your hearts, you feel the same call to the priesthood or consecrated life, do not be afraid to follow Christ on the royal road of the Cross.”
She describes that moment as a turning point.
“What followed there was an invitation to surrender control,” she said.
The name she took on as a novice, Sister John Mary, is partly in honour of Pope John Paul II, who died the same year she joined the Sisters of Life.
Once she believed there were “endless options” in life. Now she’s happy there’s just one.
“It was very freeing to know that God’s in control. We try to control our lives, but his plans and his invitations are so much better.”