In early May, the Toronto-based Sisterhood of St. John the Divine (SSJD) will have a new reverend mother.
Sister Elizabeth Rolfe-Thomas, who has served as prioress (or assistant to the reverend mother) since 2008 and as novice director since 2003, was elected to replace the incumbent, Reverend Mother Sister Elizabeth Ann Eckert.
“I feel it’s an awesome responsibility, a challenging task,” she told the Anglican Journal. “I’m happy to accept it.”
Rolfe-Thomas acknowledged that she is stepping into the position during a time of uncertainty. “We’re in such a position in the church right now that we just don’t know what’s happening-the church is getting smaller. My hope is that, together as a community, we can see what the future holds. One of our great hopes is to see more vocations as a community.”
She understands that, while the sisterhood is “very much a team ministry,” the role of reverend mother is not an easy one. The reverend mother provides leadership, care and accountability for the other sisters while also facilitating the community’s decision- making process, being in contact with the wider church, fostering new vocations and ensuring the faithfulness of the community to its rule of life.
Traditionally, being a reverend mother was a lifelong position, but because of the role’s demanding nature, a reverend mother is now elected for a five-year term with the choice to accept a second five-year term.
Though Rolfe-Thomas is still not entirely sure what her vision as reverend mother will be, she has a strong belief in the importance of the ministry of religious orders such as the sisterhood to the life of the church. “We are part of the church,” she said, “but we’re on the edge of the church, and it gives us a certain freedom of thought that not everyone has. We give our whole life to what we believe, to the Christian journey, and we want to help others on their Christian journey.”
Originally from the diocese of New Westminster, Rolfe-Thomas has been a member of the SSJD since 1997. Before becoming a postulant, she taught at Crofton House School in Vancouver for 26 years. She is currently chaplain to Council of General Synod, the Anglican Church of Canada’s governing body between General Synods.
When asked why she had joined the sisterhood, she said that she’d had an interest in joining a religious society early on in life, but it was following the death of her husband when she really started exploring the possibility. Originally intending to become an oblate, while attending a discernment program the sisterhood runs annually called “Women at a Crossroads,” she felt a strong call to join the order.
The call came as a bit of a shock. “I was an administrator at the school, a wonderful job, earning more salary than I ever thought I’d earn in a lifetime; I had family and friends-no thought of ever leaving Vancouver,” said Rolfe-Thomas. “But suddenly this pull came. I just couldn’t say no.”
Since then, she says, “I have never looked back.”
Rolfe-Thomas will be the seventh reverend mother to serve the SSJD since it was founded in 1884.