The cloistered life

Published November 1, 2011

In an era when some of us spend more time at our television and computer screens than there are hours in the day, and Canadians spend an average of $1.50 for every $1 they make, it’s a comfort to know that some Anglicans are living lives of poverty and meditative monasticism.

Within the Anglican Church of Canada, there are several holy orders dedicated to prayer and poverty, among them the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine, the Community of the Sisters of the Church and the Order of the Holy Cross.

On a blustery day in late winter, St. John’s Convent, the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. John the Divine (SSJD), nestles snugly on a large snowy lot, surrounded by trees and set well back from the street. This quiet retreat lies just blocks from one of Toronto’s busiest intersections, where Finch Avenue transects Yonge Street, the world’s longest city thoroughfare.

Far from a gothic redoubt with a mailed door, the convent is a bright modern building with no shortage of window glass. Towering over it on the lot next door is an impressive red-brick mountain-St. John’s Rehab Hospital, the largest freestanding rehabilitation hospital in Canada. The original cupola-topped building, still part of the complex, opened in 1937 on 25 acres of farmland as Canada’s first convalescent hospital.

“But our order was not founded to be a nursing or teaching order, as many of the Roman Catholic orders were,” says Sister Elizabeth Ann Eckert, the convent’s reverend mother. “We were founded first and foremost to be a community of prayer. Our original charter says that we are to work wherever God calls us.” As part of their response, the SSJD have founded hospitals and schools and provided social services.

They also teach, preach, lead retreats and quiet days, make altar linens and write hymns and music. The convent is also a spiritual home to men and women, clergy and laity, Anglicans and non-Anglicans who, as associates or oblates, maintain a spiritual connection with the convent.

The sisters greet visitors in long friarish blue robes with large plain crosses that evoke the medieval age of faith and revelation. Not for them the pert pearl-grey A-line frocks of some Catholic sisters. They host an annual open house, with talks, tours of the convent and guesthouse and a eucharist-followed by a far-from-ascetic smorgasbord lunch in the airy refectory looking out onto a quadrangle filling up with snow.

The convent has a spare and elegant chapel, a library and any number of cozy nooks in which to curl up with a book. Its guesthouse is open for individual and group retreats of one night or more, and the convent hosts day events of study and prayer as well.

Once numbering about 70, today the sisters are a smaller group of 20 in full life profession and four in the novitiate at the Toronto site, with an additional four at the small sister house of St. John in Victoria, B.C. The oldest nun is diminutive Sister Constance, 107. “She is an amazing woman,” says Sister Elizabeth Ann. “She is an American citizen who came to Canada to join the sisterhood because we had no colour bar.” She alone wears the striking black and white habit. The youngest nun is Sister Amy, 33.

The community combines contemplative cloister life with active mission, hospitality and community service. Pioneers in health care since the order’s founding in Toronto by Hannah Grier Coome in 1884, the sisters still play important roles in the hospital, providing spiritual, pastoral and library support and sitting on boards and committees.

Convent funding, says Sister Elizabeth Ann, comes from many sources. These include revenues from guests, donations from supporters, pensions, diocesan support in B.C., outreach budgets, and honorariums for teaching, preaching and leading workshops.

For some, deciding to join a religious community is a long process that takes years of soul-searching even before the initial step. About half leave before taking their life vows. For others, commitment happens early and easily. Even then, the SSJD journey takes at least six and a half years as a sister moves from postulant, to novice, first profession and finally, life profession.

Sister Doreen McGuff, who joined in 1965 right after university, is one who felt the call early in life. “A sister came to speak at our Sunday school about the convent when I was a young girl and I was stirred by the idea of joining then,” she says. But for Sister Anitra Hansen, the call came much later. “I entered the convent on my 41st birthday in Oct. 1977. My first years were not at all easy. I was independent, stubborn and used to living on my own, as well as still grieving for my (recently deceased) brother and father.

“The past eight years, however, have been especially wonderful for me as I have allowed God to wrap me in total love and acceptance,” says Sister Anitra. “And now I know, deep in my heart, what I had intuited in 1976: I will only leave SSJD if they ask me to leave, or in a coffin.”

The way of life
Prayer is the sisterhood’s first work. Each day, two hours are set aside for private prayer, meditation and reading Holy Scriptures and other spiritual books in order to deepen the union with God. The sisters also spend two or more hours daily praying together in the chapel in a cycle of worship that begins with matins, peaks at noon eucharist and ends with compline (pronounced comp-lyn), a monastic evening service used to end the day.

They hold all things in common, as witnessed by their vows of poverty. They are committed to living in community and to stability in their lives and relationships, as witnessed by their vows of chastity. Their rule of life depends upon listening for God, as witnessed by their vows of obedience. In this era of rapid change, these vows anchor them in the life of Jesus and in the transforming experience of the gospel.


  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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