by Sr. Elizabeth, SSJD.
Hannah Grier Coome, our Mother Foundress was unique in many ways. She is one of only a very few women religious founders to be born in Canada and the only founder of an Anglican Community in Canada. Her Irish father had been sent to Canada in 1823 through the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, was ordained a priest in Quebec, and then posted to the Carrying Place where Hannah grew up as one of six children in a ‘large boisterous family brimming with fun and Irish humour.’ Her father was often at the heart of the mischief. At the age of 18 she married Charles Coome, a British engineer employed to build the Grand Trunk Railway between Belleville and Kingston. A few years after their marriage, Charles was recalled to London, England, where they subsequently made their home. Their happiness was only marred by the miscarriage of their only child which was followed by a very long and painful convalescence. As Hannah couldn’t have any more children, she became involved with the Anglican Community of St. Mary the Virgin in Wantage, which ran a mission for the poor. It was here she learned to do church embroidery.
In the late 1870’s- early 1880’s Charles seemed lacking in energy but continued working. While on a business trip to Canada, he became so ill that he and Hannah decided to go and stay with his relatives in Chicago. When Hannah realized that her husband was dying, she decided that she would return to England and join the St. Mary Sisters at Wantage. Initially, however, after his death she stayed on with Charles’ relatives and used her skills in church embroidery to make altar frontals and hangings for the cathedral in Chicago. Her work was so impressive that she was offered the job of director at the Chicago School of Decorative Art. It seemed, however, that her heart was already set on joining the Community of St. Mary the Virgin in Wantage so in 1881 she set off for England travelling first to Toronto to spend time with her mother and her sister, Rose. Rose was the headmistress of Bishop Strachan School and also a member of a committee of men and women who had been working to establish a religious community in Canada. Rose organized a garden party for her sister Hannah and it was at the garden party that this committee approached Hannah and asked if she would consider starting a religious community in Canada rather than joining one in England. It must have seemed a daunting task to begin a community from scratch rather than join one she already knew and loved. After a time of discernment, however, she agreed to do this. Her spiritual advisors felt it would be better for her to do her training as a religious in the United States rather than in England.
So in June, 1882, she travelled to the Community of St. Mary, in Peekskill, New York, to begin her training as a Religious. To her dismay, she discovered on her arrival that she was being put in charge of all the housekeeping as the Sister-in-charge was away for a short time. And that was only the beginning of her challenges. Her novitiate was unusual because she was being prepared for her new responsibilities as a Reverend Mother. While continuing to hone her skills in needlework she also served in several other roles during those two years: as sacristan, as house-mistress working with delinquent girls, and even receiving professional nurse’s training. Every part of her training would be needed in later years. Hannah made her Life Profession on September 8, 1884, in the presence of the Bishop of Toronto. Meanwhile, during these two years the committee in Toronto had been working hard to get support for this new religious community; they wanted to raise $25,000 for an endowment fund for the Sisters so that they could focus on their work without worrying about money.
The first convent, a house on Robinson Street, still exists: at one time it was thought to have been a stable — a rather suitable home for a new religious community. It was certainly very different from our beautiful, spacious convent of today. It was actually two houses joined together and very simply furnished with three very hard beds and a few chairs; a table, a dish-pan, coal-scuttle, and shovel. When Mother Hannah and Novice Aimée moved in, there were bed linens, some plates, cups and saucers, a few provisions, a kettle and frying-pan lent to them by a local priest but no lamps. A Divinity Student living across the street produced a lamp and two candles in wine bottles to illuminate their first meal. Their tiny chapel, however, had everything necessary; all the Altar Vestments had been made by Mother Hannah during her novitiate. On the Feast of St. John the Divine, 1885, the house was formally opened and blessed by the Bishop of Toronto.
Mother Hannah’s tiny community was not popular with the Orangemen of Toronto; only the parish of St. Matthias, where the Rev. Ogden Ford (our first warden) worked, was willing to have them within their parish boundaries. People on the streets would yell at them and call them papists because of their habits, but their care for the poor and the dispossessed gradually won them over. In fact their reputation spread beyond Toronto and in 1885 they were asked to go to Moose Jaw bringing some nurses with them to set up a hospital for those being wounded in the Louis Riel Rebellion. While crossing Lake Superior by boat, Mother Hannah decided to cut off her beautiful long hair because she realized she wouldn’t be able to care for it properly in this new work. This was just one of many sacrifices she made.
“When the sisters and nurses arrived in Moose Jaw, a small ceremony was held to welcome them, and with a little flourish they were handed the keys to a large, tar-papered building. Opening the door, they discovered it was completely empty. The sisters were expected to create hospital facilities from scratch.” The sisters were not content just to set up forty beds and provide nursing care, however. They also set up a marquee with tables and chairs as a recreation tent where the wounded as they were able could get outside and enjoy the fresh air. “This homey arrangement was pure Mother Hannah. Among the ‘vital’ supplies she had brought from Toronto were magazines, newspapers, snack food, chessboards and cribbage boards, books, and pipes and tobacco, for she knew that it takes more than medication and surgical tools to heal people; it takes compassion and certain little comforts to make the sick feel valued and to speed their recovery.”
When the Sisters returned to Toronto, they discovered that their supporters, the Sisterhood’s first Associates, had purchased a house just around the corner from the convent to be a small hospital. And so their pioneering in hospital work in Toronto began alongside their mission to the poor.
From the beginning Mother Hannah insisted that “the Life of Prayer and Devotion must come first” and out of that life of prayer and devotion would come “Active Works of Charity: teaching, nursing, ministering to the fallen, the aged, and the poor.” This has meant that we could respond to whatever the needs of the people were in each time and place through the leading of the Holy Spirit. In Mother Hannah’s time this included St. John’s Hospital for Women on Major Street; a Home for the Elderly, the Seaton Village Mission in the parish of St. Cyprian’s, a Guest House on Brunswick Avenue, a School of Nursing which graduated its first nurses in 1903 and the staffing of Bishop Bethune College in Oshawa — their first experience in the field of education. All of these ministries were undertaken in the first 20 years of this fledgling Community. Fourteen Sisters were professed in the first ten years; by 1904 there were 18 professed sisters and one novice.
Mother Hannah was a visionary who accepted whatever challenges came her way: the loss of her only child; the death of her husband; the invitation to found a religious community; the setting up of not one but three hospitals in the first five years; opening a home for the elderly three times in ten years — the first two buildings proved to be unsatisfactory. Besides all these outside ministries of the Sisterhood, the Sisters made altar breads and embroidered vestments and altar linens. Mother Hannah must have had great courage, stamina and sense of purpose.
Through the past 136½ years our ministries have changed but the community has continued to answer many challenges through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As our current rule says: “Our community is called to be a stable and radiating centre of the presence and power of Christ, within the church and society. Our apostolate is the outflowing of our union with God and with one another in God.”We try to live according to the gospel imperatives of prayer, hospitality, spiritual guidance, ministering to those in need, working for justice and peace, and caring for creation.
May Mother Hannah continue to inspire us, the Sisters of St. John the Divine as we carry on the work which she began.