The Sisterhood of St. John the Divine is a monastic community founded in Toronto in 1884 and the Mother House, St. John’s Convent, is still based in Toronto. The Sisterhood offers several paths into exploring the spiritual life and monastic community. Those looking for a longer-term commitment to the Sisterhood can become an associate or oblate, and there’s also the companion program that allows women to spend a year living and praying with the sisters and offering their service to the community. Through their “food for the soul” program the sisters offer regular workshops, courses, multi-day retreats and quiet days.
At one time the Sisterhood had branch houses across Canada, as well as in New York. However, the last remaining branch house, St. John’s House in Victoria, closed in 2020 due to the pandemic restrictions. The guest house at St. John’s Convent also had to close to visitors, and the sisters were no longer able to travel to facilitate retreats and quiet days. But Sister Doreen McGuff who has been in communion since 1965, can see the positive side of this situation. “We had to close our guest house but, in a sense, we have opened it up. We now have an online guest house that attracts people around the world who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to get involved or attend our events.”
Thanks to the Sisterhood’s drive to serve the needs of their community, and with some help from their postulants, they are now able to offer a wide range of online workshops, retreats and quiet days. Their companion program is also available online and they have been livestreaming evensong, with a growing congregation in attendance.
Sister Doreen has run four virtual quiet days on Zoom and though she recognizes that not everyone is willing to use Zoom, the experience has been overwhelmingly positive. The quiet days begin with admitting the 30 to 40 participants into the Zoom call. This can take a long time! Participants then have the chance to meet each other. There is typically 30 minutes of conversation time, and participants have commented to Sister Doreen on how wonderful they’ve found meeting people from other provinces and countries. There is then a quiet day address followed by 30 minutes of silence, then another address, followed by one hour of silence and finally a third address and another 30 minutes of silence. At the end there’s time to talk and reflect as well as prayer.
Sister Doreen believes the at-home quiet days serve a useful purpose: “People need to get used to using their own homes as a quiet space. There will always be distractions, even in a church, the hard pews can be distracting.” The online quiet days seem to be working well. “Zoom doesn’t provide the intimacy to relate in a close way, but it gives me the opportunity to help more people than if I had to travel.”
Dorothy Dahli lives in Victoria and became an associate of the Sisterhood in 2011. She has since deepened her commitment and is now an oblate. As part of her commitment as an oblate, Ms. Dahli is required to be in retreat at least five days annually. She used to attend retreats and quiet days at St. Johns House in Victoria and enjoyed the experience of a very personal quiet time in communion with others, but she has embraced the online quiet days since the pandemic started.
“They are very similar to the ones we had in-house. It’s very personal; there are no breakout rooms, you say ‘hello’ and then you are muted. You don’t need to have anything to say at the end of the day. The sisters bring reflections that readily speak to each of the attendees personally. Sister Doreen makes you feel gathered. It’s a blessing to have a day like that.”
Ms. Dahli echoes Sister Doreen’s sentiments about the need for creating a quiet space at home “We need to be able to have these kinds of quiet times in our own homes, we don’t often create that space… A few people have said they’d lost the discipline of doing prayer, bible readings and quiet time. The online quiet days have gotten people back into that rhythm.” She also believes it is important to continue offering retreats and workshops online. “I like the idea that anyone can join whereas before it was only a few people. I hope we can get together in-person again but considering how difficult travel is I also hope they will continue online.”
The Sisterhood certainly seems to be committed to offering its workshops, courses, retreats and quiet days online, with online events advertised on their website through May 2022. “I really think we will never go back to not having things online,” says Sister Doreen. “I see the convent in Toronto as available for people nearby. But what about all the people not nearby? People would travel around to do quiet days and retreats, but you didn’t have the chance to meet as many people. We are a community for the Canadian church. We need to be 100 per cent enthusiastic about that. Covid forced us to be available to people all over the place. It’s been a blessing. I hope it stays this way; it has to be.”