How do 25 Sisters, three Companions, one retired priest and a few employees get along in close quarters for almost six months at the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine’s convent in Toronto? Sr. Constance Joanna Gefvert explains.
We’re doing fine here at St. John’s Convent. We are all still friends. None of us has gotten sick. We’ve had to lay off some of our employees and the Sisters and Companions have done more housework than usual. We’ve discovered that our vacuum cleaners are way past their due date and we’ve bought six new ones. (How did our housekeeping staff suffer so long with those terrible machines? And won’t they be happy there are new ones when they return from lay-off!)
We are privileged in our worship. Because 29 of us have constituted one bubble, and because we have a priest in our bubble, we are allowed to celebrate the Eucharist. We do it with special prayers for those who are unable to share in that sacrament of the Church, well aware of this special privilege. We continue to sing the daily office as well, although when our organist, Dan Norman, returns to play for us, we will have to sing with masks on to protect him and his family. But the centre of our life is prayer, so however we do it, we have the opportunity and honour of praying for our Church, our city, our world.
Because we have only one priest in the community, many of the Sisters have volunteered to offer the homilies at our Sunday and saints’ day Eucharists. Most of these have been posted online, so we are not only able to share the Sisters’ spiritual reflections, but we ourselves are discovering new gifts in each other.
We wear masks when working with our staff or outside service people, but not when we are with those in our own bubble, although to be extra cautious we have separated from one another in chapel, in our community room and refectory. We found a supply of out-of-service washcloths – over 100 of them – in the laundry storage room and have repurposed them for hand towels in the refectory. Who would ever have thought that we would wash our hands several times during a meal – whenever we go back to the buffet (it’s enough to discourage some of us from having second helpings)!
While much of our daily life goes on as usual, with our priority on our prayer, we have been challenged by the relinquishment of all three of our outreach ministries. The Sisters who work in our Spiritual Care Team at St. John’s Rehab have not been able to be there since March. Our branch house in Victoria, B.C. is closed. Our Guest House is closed, and we have no idea yet when we will be able to open it – not before January, and possibly longer.
Not having these connections with the community and the wider Church is difficult for us and there is grieving to do. But we have also been inventive (as in so many places in our Church) with finding new ways to reach out. Zoom has now become a verb, and we find ourselves Zooming all over the place – to meetings, to see our spiritual directors, to classes that Sisters are participating in, and to pastoral conversations with our Associates, Oblates, and others. The telephone is still handy, of course – but many of us have found that a face-to-face conversation is so much better – and there is no need for a mask.
As I write this in late August, we are looking forward to September, and the likelihood of the Sisters going back to work in spiritual care at St. John’s Rehab. We will be offering online courses for the first time, and with the generous help of our retreat leaders booked for the coming season, we have been able to convert most of the events in our Food for the Soul program to online retreats. We also have plans to develop an online prayer ministry, and to begin video-recording some of our services to post on our website.
We have no idea what else might develop. We journey with Jesus as a provisional community, open to seeing what God calls us to next, and trying to let go of the need to control the future and make long-term plans that will suddenly be changed. Our God is a creative God, and has stamped each of us with the divine creative image. We let go of what is normal and look ahead not to a “new normal” but a daily journey on the road with Jesus, comforting the bereaved who have lost friends and family members to the coronavirus, praying for the healing of those who are ill, and open to the newness that awaits us.
The Sisterhood of St. John the Divine’s new website, www.ssjd.ca, has homilies and blog posts by the Sisters, in addition to registration information about their online retreats and courses.