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Scarborough Deanery Evensong to Celebrate the Sisters of St. John the Divine on the Feast of St. Patrick

A Homily for the Feast of St. Patrick and The Sisterhood of St. John the Divine.

By Sr. Doreen, SSJD.

When we think of Saint Patrick our minds usually go immediately to the holiday, celebrated with shamrocks, meals of corned beef and cabbage, and green everywhere! In fact I have to tell you I turned on the TV to watch the hockey game between the Maple Leaf’s and the Hurricane’s and thought I had turned on the wrong channel as there was a team dressed in green and white uniforms, a big shamrock on the sweater with the words St. Pats written across it! Much to my surprise I was on the right channel! The Maple Leaf’s were celebrating St. Patrick’s day! I thought how appropriate it was, as Toronto has a long historical connection with Ireland. In 1847 at the height of the Irish Famine, Toronto a city of 22,000 then received nearly 39,000 Irish immigrants fleeing the famine, welcomed them and cared for them. Some several thousands died of disease and starvation from the long, crowded journey by ship. There is a memorial park called “Ireland Park” at the foot of Bathurst Street right on the shores of Lake Ontario. It’s a beautiful park, a moving experience with memorials and statues, well worth a visit.

But the real St. Patrick is a wonderful person, after we peel away all the folklore, fables, and myths that have grown up around him. The real St. Patrick is a very strong and courageous character who suffered a lot, and is probably, together, with St. Augustine the two best known Christians of the fifth century.

Patrick grew up in a very well to do family, but in a time of turmoil in Britain, and as a teenager was taken as a slave to work in Ireland as a shepherd. One can only imagine the shock and suffering that he must have felt, along with thousands of others like himself who were taken into captivity. For Patrick during this time as a slave he grew close to God and experienced the tenacious and unconditional love of God amid his isolation. He became a man of deep prayer. He eventually escaped from Ireland. His experience gave him the preparation that he would need when he returned to Ireland some years later as a missionary and Bishop.

It made me think of our own Mother Foundress, Hannah Grier Coome. She grew up in a loving Christian family, and as a young married women suffered a miscarriage of her first child followed by a very painful recovery, leaving her unable to have any more children. Not long after this she suffered the death of her husband. Like Patrick during this time, I believe that she drew much closer to God and experienced that same tenacious and unconditional love of God in her own isolation. Hannah was a strong and courageous woman. She became a woman of deep prayer. She eventually responded to her own desire to give herself to God and planned to return to England and join a Religious Community that she had come to love while she and her husband had lived in England. Instead, a group of people in Canada who wanted to have a Religious Community in the Anglican Church of Canada persuaded her to begin a new Community in Canada, the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine. I believe that her experience gave her the preparation that she would need when she agreed to train in the Community of St Mary in the United States and start a new Community after her preparation there in 1884.

They both, Patrick, and Hannah, knew what it was like to have their life turned upside down, to move from a life of privilege to having everything taken away from them, from the familiar to the strange, from security to dependence on others. It was their deep trust in God that kept them going, a loving relationship with God that called them both to bear witness to God in difficult environments. Their lives, often an experience of walking in darkness, were deeply rooted in prayer.

We have come to know and sing this faith of Patrick in a familiar hymn; a faith expressed both as “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,  Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,  Christ on my right, Christ on my left” and as “Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me, Christ in the eye of everyone who sees me”. Their faith had an essential interior dimension and an essential communal dimension – we need both, they go hand in hand, and both Patrick and Mother Hannah are fine role models for us.

It is for us, you in your faith communities and us Sisters in my community, to embody this same faith. We are called to be communities where faith is alive, where healing touch is felt, where words of comfort and compassion are heard, where people are supported, and where the Word of God inspires.

As a Community, the Sisterhood of St John the Divine over these 140 years has tried to humbly embody this faith and these values. Throughout the years we have lived a life of prayer and service, quietly opening our home to others, with ministries across Canada, including hospitals, schools, an orphanage, mission houses, and other ministries among the vulnerable poor in cities across Canada. In every place we have worked, hospitality has been at the core of our mission.  Today our Guest House offers hospitality to both groups and individuals, those who come to share our life. Many have experienced our home as an oasis in times when they have been spiritually hungry, or in need of rest and prayer. This ministry has continued to grow over the years, along with offering spiritual direction, retreats, quiet days, workshops and space for parishes, Diocesan and National church groups, people of other denominations and faith groups to gather and explore and deepen their relationship with God. One of the gifts of these past few years of COVID has been the challenge to reach out and share the good news with others in diverse ways, and it has taught us just how much all of us need each other. Now in-person, online zoom, live stream, as well as hybrid formats, are part of our outreach and ministry.

Today we need your help in a particular way. Our Guest House building was constructed in 1953 and was partially updated in 2004 when we moved from our Convent on Botham Road to our present Convent on Cummer Avenue. The Guest House, like any home, needs maintenance and renewal to meet the needs of our guests and today’s building code standards. There is an urgent need to replace the roof, the windows, and the heating and cooling systems with more environmentally friendly systems, as well as to upgrade and in some cases reconstruct bedrooms, bathrooms, and meeting rooms. One of the most crucial reconstruction projects is a new accessible entrance into the Guest House. These extraordinary repairs, costing us 6 million dollars, need your support. Through contributions from our own Founders fund and from those who have already supported us, we have raised nearly 5 million. We have a life to share, and we look forward to continuing the ministry of hospitality and retreats for many years to come. We cannot do it without help.

As St. Patrick and Mother Hannah set out to share the faith with courage, it was their deep trust in God, their humble dependence on others, and a loving relationship with God that called them both to bear witness to God in difficult environments. Their lives, often an experience of walking in darkness, were deeply rooted in prayer. It is this that kept them going. Today our Guest House has been called by others and now by ourselves, a Home for the Heart – it is, we believe, a gift we have to offer, especially in the uncertainty of our times. Please help us sustain a Home for the Heart at the Convent.