2 Hamilton convents are closing, ending a remarkable era that helped build a caring city

They've taught generations of kids. They've nursed the sick and elderly. They've buried the dead. You can call nuns early feminists, or the founders of modern healthcare in Hamilton. Either would be accurate.

Call them early feminists, or the founders of modern healthcare in Hamilton, but nuns are leaving a legacy

A statue of Mother Mary Martha Von Bunning sits outside the Sisters of St. Joseph motherhouse in Dundas. Von Bunning was still in her twenties when she founded the Hamilton order. She died in her 40s. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

When Sister Teresita McInally leaves the Sisters of St. Joseph motherhouse in Dundas next month, it'll be "kicking and screaming." But she, like the few others still there, knows the time has come.

It's a beautiful property, with an expanse of green grass, flowers with blooms like clouds and a gazebo with comfortable chairs. At one point, more than 100 sisters lived here, women religious who taught high school, and cared for the sick, and held leadership positions in a time when few women did.

But fewer than 20 live here now, and like other orders in Hamilton, it's too few to maintain a building. The motherhouse is closing for good.

"I know something good will come of it," said McInally, who became a Sister of St. Joseph in 1945, when she was 17. "I've had enough experience to know the Lord is with us all the way along."

"What we're experiencing is what everyone around us is experiencing," said Sister Anne Karges, former general superior of the local Sisters of St. Joseph.

"The process of aging, of letting go, of moving, so we are one with everyone else that is beside us in this time of change."

Sisters of St. Joseph

4 years ago
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Featured VideoSisters of St. Joseph talk about selling their Dundas motherhouse

In December, the 10 or so women religious remaining there will pack up their belongings and move away from Northcliffe Avenue. Columbia International College is buying the property and converting it into a student residence. The sisters will maintain a small amount of office space. Some have moved to other motherhouses, and the rest will move to a Burlington retirement villa.

The last mass in Hamilton's largest motherhouse was held in October. It's one of two convents in the city shutting down this fall, marking the end of a remarkable era of community service and activism that includes a legacy of significant Hamilton institutions.

Sisters in Hamilton have founded schools and orphanages. They've nursed the dying and taught generations of kids. The Sisters of St. Joseph in particular founded St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton, St. Joseph's Villa and the Immigrants Working Centre, among other institutions. They've sponsored countless refugee families over the years, and some lived at the motherhouse.

Sisters of St. Joseph, from left: Sister Mary Ambrose, Sister Teresita McInally, Sister Anne Karges and Sister Mary Walter. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The Sisters of Notre Dame, meanwhile, are selling their Waterdown convent. In doing so, they're exhuming the remains of about 300 sisters to relocate at nearby Gate of Heaven cemetery.

"The need for this kind of residential space has decreased over the past several years," the sisters said in a media release, "and data shows it will continue to decrease in the future."

The Sisters Adorers of the Precious Blood's monastery shares the same sprawling property as the Sisters of St. Joseph, and of the 21 sisters there, eight are in their nineties. Lay people run the altar bread department there now, and the Hamilton monastery acts as the order's infirmary.

(Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The Sisters of Loretto once operated academies in Hamilton and Guelph, and they have no presence in Hamilton now, says Monsignor Murray Kroetsch from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hamilton. The Sisters of the Social Service once operated the Mount Cenacle retreat house at the Auchmar Mansion from 1946 to 1971, and only one sister is based in Hamilton now.

Elizabeth Smyth, a University of Toronto professor who researches women religious in Roman Catholicism, says sisters in Canada reached peak numbers at around 60,000 in the 1960s. But even in the 1950s, she said, people warned of a coming decline.

The Sisters of St. Joseph motherhouse opened at 574 Northcliffe Ave. in 1951. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Statistics from the Canadian Religious Conference show women account for about 80 per cent of the 12,220 men and women religious in Canada now. Half are older than 80, and nearly a quarter live in a nursing home.

Sister Mary Ambrose, who became a Sister of St. Joseph at age 15, says there are more career options for women now. And "young people seem to be afraid of commitment."

Ambrose, 94, is moving next month too. She's lived at the Northcliffe facility, with brief travels elsewhere, since 1951.

The motherhouse on Northcliffe has several nearly empty sitting areas for the 20 nuns who remain on site. Many used to be offices or rooms inhabited by the more than 100 nuns who lived there. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

As for whether more women will heed the call, "we pray every day for that," said Patrick Daly, chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board.

The impact of nuns, he said – and the Sisters of St. Joseph in particular – has been "incredible."

Sisterhood one way to fight for social justice

The Sisters of St. Joseph have a long history. The order began with six women in Le Puy, France in 1650. The congregation flourished and spread during the 17th century, says the website of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada. Many sisters were imprisoned, faced the guillotine and died as martyrs during the French Revolution.

The sisters arrived in Toronto in 1851. In 1852, some members relocated to Hamilton, a 14-year-old city of about 7,000 people.

They set up a motherhouse at the corner of Park Avenue North and Colbourne Street. Resources were scant, but their leader, 28-year-old Mother Martha Von Bunning, had seen hardship before. She came from St. Louis, Mo., where three of her fellow sisters had died from a cholera epidemic.

Sisters of St. Joseph join local dignitaries at an early St. Joseph's Healthcare event. (St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton)

Von Bunning rallied the sisters, who traveled on countryside on farmer-driven wagons to collect supplies. The community started the Orphans' Festival in 1853, and it was annual for more than 100 years.

The order had a supporter in Sir Allan Napier MacNab, a member of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada. MacNab, who lived at Dundurn Castle, secured annual government grants of $600 in 1856, says the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. On his deathbed six years later, MacNab converted to Catholicism.

Von Bunning opened branch houses in Paris, Brantford and Oakville before she headed back to St. Louis. When she realized her health was declining, she returned to Toronto in 1868 and died a few days later, at age 44.

The sisters came to Hamilton, in part, to care for people who fell victim to a cholera and typhoid epidemic, said Sister Anne Anderson, chair of St. Joseph's Health System. They started caring for people "in freight sheds behind the Barton Jail," she said. When patients died, the sisters often buried them too.

A Sister of St. Joseph, who the hospital has on record only as "Sister Virginia," teaches nurses at the St. Joseph's nursing school. (St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton)

The order expanded. In 1890, the sisters opened a 25-bed hospital on John Street, and that grew to include a nursing school in 1911. St. Joe's partnered with McMaster University to open a medical school in 1969, and hospitals started in Kitchener and Guelph. In Hamilton, the organization has grown to include a psychiatric hospital on West 5th and four campuses.

It's significant that women did all this, Smyth said. For women who wanted social justice and leadership more than marriage and children, becoming a sister was one of the few ways to achieve that. 

Convents started in France, in fact, for women to combine their resources, she said. The habit developed because those women wore the traditional attire of widows.

"They presented a face of women who were in powerful positions," she said. "In schools, they were principals. They ran the hospitals. They ran the orphanages. They established St. Joseph's Villa and ran that.

"They represent the face of a woman in the Catholic church that was very powerful."

Hundreds of prayer requests, thousands of letters

The Sisters of the Precious Blood are in a unique situation. Their Hamilton monastery takes in sick and elderly sisters from monasteries in Calgary, Regina and London. So if a monastery closes in the future, said local superior Sister Gisele Goguen, it probably won't be Hamilton.

The eldest sister at the Hamilton monastery is 96, but she still attends multiple daily prayer meetings, Goguen said. Three sisters are bed bound. Some have Alzheimer's or dementia.

The Hamilton sisters still take hundreds of prayer requests, Goguen said. They write letters to about 3,000 people on a regular basis.

The first general superiors: Mother Mary Martha Von Bunning and Mother Mary Philip Lenaten. The current general superior is Sister Anne Karges. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

There are younger sisters, she said, but most immigrate here from other countries like Vietnam, Nigeria and the Philippines. But immigration rules, she said, don't favour those in religious life. How do you declare an income, she said, when you've taken a vow of poverty?

The order is appealing to the federal government, she said, but right now, "we're kind of at a dead end."

As for the Sisters of St. Joseph, they may be packing up from the motherhouse, but they aren't yet ready to call it a day.

McInally is still active. She drives herself to Brantford every week to work at St. Joseph's Lifecare Centre, and puts together "starter packages" for new moms.

Sister Mary Walter, who moved from Brantford to Hamilton for the long-term care wing of the motherhouse, was a teacher for most of her career. She plans to reach out, in typical fashion, to help whoever's around her at the Burlington villa.

The first St. Joseph's Motherhouse in Hamilton stood at the corner of Colbourne and Park Street North. They moved out in 1914, and the building has since been demolished. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Ambrose, a former principal of Cathedral High School, is legally blind now, but still plays the organ.

The motherhouse "is holy ground for me," she said. But "I'm looking forward to continuing some kind of ministry when we move. I don't know exactly what it's going to look like, but I'm sure we'll find something."

Maybe it'll look different, Ambrose said, but the legacy of the Sisters will continue. New people are running the Immigrants Working Centre now. St. Joseph's Healthcare is a multimillion-dollar organization with 777 beds and 270,271 in-patient days last year. New people who have been influenced by the Sisters, who've been trained and helped by them, are taking in refugees now. 

The Sisters of the Precious Blood have a monastery at 154 Northcliffe Ave. that houses sick and elderly sisters. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The Sisters have never been about self preservation anyway. It is, and always has been, about the work.

Ambrose recalls the meeting where she made peace with leaving the motherhouse. It came when the sisters prayed for guidance.

"I remember a sense of peace and serenity coming though the room when we realized yes, we have to let go of this place," she said.

"It doesn't make any sense to keep it, and from that day on, I have been quite at peace with it. There are lots of unanswered questions, but if the good Lord hasn't let me down over all these years, He's not going to let me down now."


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca