Struggling to recruit, Sisters of St. Martha prepare for future after they're gone

The Sisters of St. Martha have been unable to recruit new members to the congregation, leading them to think of their legacy and who will continue their work on the Island.

'The sisters went where the need was'

Sister Rosemary MacDonald and Sister Gemma Dunn are proud of the work the Sisters of St. Martha have done on the Island over the years. (Isabella Zavarise/CBC)

Four Catholic women formed the Sisters of St. Martha on P.E.I. in 1916. In the late '60s the congregation numbered 160 members. Now, 41 remain.

Sister Gemma Dunn joined the Marthas when she was 19. She said it pains her to think of the order's inability to recruit new members. 

"Oftentimes I feel very sad. But I also realize times are changing," she said.

Sister Rosemary MacDonald, in her 35th year of service, said the Marthas numbers began to decline in the early '70s.

Despite the realization that the congregation will one day reach its end, both women are proud of the Martha's legacy on the Island.  

Pioneers in the province

"The Sisters went where the need was. In our constitution, we talk about meeting the signs of the times. And I think over the years, we have done that," MacDonald said.

"We, without a doubt, were pioneers in education, in health care, in social services in the province." 

The Mount Continuing Care Community is home to 26 sisters who share the space with various community members. 'Before, our senior sisters didn't have a lot of contact because of disabilities and not [being] able to go out, but now they have all these new friends,' says Sister Gemma Dunn. (Isabella Zavarise/CBC)

Dunn echoed that sentiment, pointing to the many schools the Marthas started. Especially in rural P.E.I. where the group often provided education beyond what was being offered by local officials.

"The parish priest and the parish council would come and say 'After Grade 8 there's no education in our community,'" she said.

And so we always tried to give. To meet needs where people are really needy. And our earth is very needy right now.- Sister Rosemary MacDonald

Dunn runs the Spirituality Centre in downtown Charlottetown and gets emotional when recounting stories from the 1930s.

"I remember as a little girl, the sisters at our parish church begging … that's how they collected money for the hospital," she said.

"They had nothing. They just worked with what they had. It's quite touching."

'It's who we are'

These are the kinds of good deeds MacDonald hopes Islanders remember the Marthas for.

"Our goal really was to care for the people. It was never for profit," she said.

"And so we always tried to give. To meet needs where people are really needy. And our earth is very needy right now."

The Northumberland Ferry that the first four Marthas travelled on in 1916. (The Mount Continuing Care Community )

For MacDonald, her identity in being a Martha is greater than the congregation.

"I guess in some ways it feels kind of natural.… It's who we are. It's a real gift to be part of it, to be part of this community," she said. 

As the congregation grows smaller, the Marthas have started legacy planning, to decide where and how their work will be carried out. 

'Peaks and valleys'

MacDonald said she looks back at the history of the Church and sees this as a natural step forward in completing their mission. 

"There have been the peaks and valleys of religious life. And I think of it in a way, are we completing our mission that we were asked to do? The Martha spirit and our motto is love and service," she said.

Both are hopeful the work will carry on in their memory. 

"You have to have the right people," said MacDonald.

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