Convent's closure marks end of an era

The century-old Sisters of St. Joseph convent in Pembroke, Ont., is for sale, and the eight remaining nuns are due to move out next month.

Century-old Sisters of St. Joseph convent in Pembroke, Ont., now home to just 8 nuns

There are only eight nuns left at the Sisters of St. Joseph convent, all in their 80s. (Stu Mills/CBC)

A nearly 100-year-old convent is set to close in Pembroke, Ont., at the end of this month.

The Sisters of St. Joseph has been operating on the shore of the Ottawa River since 1921, when the congregation began farming a 5.4-hectare plot of sloping land on what was then Pembroke's outskirts.

The acreage was once home to 80 nuns who trained, operated a Catholic mission and worked as teachers, nurses and caregivers for the elderly in several Ottawa Valley communities. They also welcomed in seniors who couldn't afford the cost of conventional homes or find housing elsewhere in Pembroke.

Now, with the property expected to be sold by the end of this month, the eight remaining sisters, all in their mid-80s, say it truly is the end of an era.

The current convent building was completed in 1953, and sits on a parcel of riverfront property just west of downtown Pembroke. (Stu Mills/CBC)

In 1953, the Sisters of St. Joseph opened a new convent on the original site.

The congregation peaked in the 1970s when about 80 nuns dined, prayed, slept and operated a well-equipped infirmary there.

Though Sister Lucy Germain wasn't raised in a particularly religious family, she surprised them all when she knocked on the convent doors one September morning. Sister Lucy was welcomed into the fold and began training, but only lasted until the following February.

"The honeymoon was over," she laughed, looking back. "I guess it was lonesomeness."

Sister Loretta Rice spent part of her career working as a teacher in Ontario's Catholic school system. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Germain spent two years at teachers college where, she confesses, she danced, went to parties and dated boys, including one who was very disappointed when she dropped him and everything else to return to the convent.

"It's such a mystery, but it really is a call, and I believe if it's your place, that's what God wants. And, after that, I never hesitated," she said. "Whether we lived here permanently or were living elsewhere, this was our home."

The 55,000-square-foot red brick building includes a pool, a cafeteria, dozens of apartments and of course a chapel.

A large, cafeteria-style dining room on the convent's main floor overlooks the Ottawa River (Stu Mills/CBC)

Colliers Real Estate is pitching the $2.2-million listing as an ideal site for a private school, a nursing home or a development opportunity.

The sisters say they expect a deal to be reached with one of several prospective buyers by the end of the month.

In the open sitting room where the nuns spent their evenings watching the Ottawa Senators and Netflix on a modern flat-screen TV, Sister Betty Berrigan, 85, discovered one of the convent's many upright pianos is sliding out of tune.

"Oh, I don't think you'd better put that on television!" she laughed.

Sister Betty Berrigan stands inside the convent's sunny TV room, where the sisters read and watch TV. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Sister Betty entered the convent at 18.

"I had a wonderful boyfriend at one time and he didn't like the idea, but anyway I had to stay the course," she shrugged. "It's been a very happy life for me. I've been in the right place and I know it."

'It's been a very happy life for me. I've been in the right place and I know it," Berrigan said. (Stu Mills/CBC)

In 1964, the Sisters of St. Joseph opened a mission in Peru that continues to operate today.

The sale of the convent will allow the eight remaining sisters, who have ostensibly spent most of their lives living below the poverty line, to move to a comfortable retirement residence across town.

They have already begun labelling furniture with pieces of tape so that what little property they own can follow them to their new home in mid-February.

A photograph in the Colliers real estate listing shows the convent's indoor pool (Colliers)

"But we maintain, too, that this life will go on," said Sister Loretta Rice, who entered the convent at age 23 and will turn 85 in June.

"Not here in Pembroke, but in other places and in other countries."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?