Posted by: Shari Jackson
There is a large yellow brick building high on a hill on Echo Drive. A tall cross crowns the structure and hints at the nature of the activities carried on within its walls.
Large wooden doors open to reveal a long staircase which climbs into the heart of the building. At the top of the stairs a life-size figure of Christ hangs upon a cross, blood pouring in frozen motion from His wounds.
The “parlour” is really a large visiting room divided by a U-shaped counter. There are chairs set up on either side of the counter, and a tall wrought iron grill separates the table in half.
From behind the grill, two Sisters enter the room. They are wearing long white gowns, red tunics and upon each head is a wimple, the standard black veil worn by nuns. “The grill is there to show we have the special purpose in life,” says Sister Jeannine Cyr. “We pray for people, we must not get involved in worldly things and so the grills separate us.”
The Sisters are cloistered and this, says Sister Blandine Lefebvre means they are “contemplative” nuns and may move from monastery to monastery (there are 29 in the Precious Blood Order) but they are cut off from the secular world.
Although they remain within the convent, the Sisters say their days are neither empty nor idle.
“We get up at 5:30 in the morning every day. We have our meditating time, a liturgical hour and breakfast. We continue this throughout the day. All our day has this orientation towards prayer and mass,” says Sister Blandine. Sister Jeannine adds that their prayer is a source of revenue too, “We get a lot of letters. People write to ask us to pray for them or someone they know and when their prayers are answered, they often send us money in thanks. They don’t have to, it is like a donation,” she says.
Along with their prayers, the Sisters have more earthly duties as well. “We have our work. It could be in the vestment room or the linen house. One Sister answers the door, another answers the phone, that kind of thing. We must do all the work that is to be done in the house and for the upkeep,” says Sister Blandine.
The two nuns are eager to talk about their home and their activities. Sister Jeannine points out that another major duty of the convent is to provide care for the older Sisters in the infirmary. The infirmary is run by two registered nurses with the help of “auxiliary” Sisters.
For a few hours of each day, the Sisters have a recreation time, enjoying such activities as music, knitting or drawing. “Some of the older Sisters, they really like puzzles also,” says Sister Blandine. Another thought occurs to Sister Blandine and she consults with Sister Jeannine in murmurs of French, then courteously returns to English. “Our meals here are very simple,” she says. “But they are nourishing and are eaten in silence. We listen to spiritual readings, letters from our sister monasteries, or maybe stories of the saints. They can be very interesting.”
“When it’s warm,” Sister Jeannine adds, “we lake our meals outside. We have a beautiful garden. It is important for we need to take air and we can walk around outside in the garden.”
But what is it really like to be a cloistered nun? “We love it,” says Sister Blandine. “For myself I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It is wonderful. It is something we have chosen.”
“Yes,” says Sister Jeannine. “The Lord has attracted us but it is something we choose for ourselves. What I don’t understand is why so many young girls don’t come in.”
“There’s a different lifestyle in here,” she continued. “The attachment the young all have to money, why, they want all the satisfactions at once. They aren’t made to renounce these things as we have. They think it is happiness, this having all things, but it isn’t like the real joy of God.”
To help encourage prospective nuns, or novices, the Convent has a live-in program which allows for young girls to come and live in the building for two weeks or more to try out life as a cloistered Sister. “For some it works out, others go. Some would stay but we do not let them,” says Sister Jeannine.
“They don’t have the real vocation. They lack the special faith deep inside them.”
But the Sisters aren’t worried about the fate of their Order. “There is a move back towards the Church. We have very much hope for the future. There will be many more novices with vocations,” says Sister Jeannine optimistically. Meanwhile, the convent is preparing for the Christmas season. “We prepare for Christmas like other Orders, but we put more emphasis on the precious blood of Jesus, which is a symbol of our redemption,” says Sister Jeannine. “Like the churches we have the Advent wreathe and every week we put another candle in. It’s the occasion for special prayers and the singing of the special Christmas hymns.”
As the Sisters stand and turn to leave, their goodbyes are punctuated with “God bless you” and ‘”We’ll pray for you”. The visitor is struck again by their deep faith and strength of conviction about their vocation.
Leaving the convent, the visitor descends the long staircase, pausing for a moment to look back at the suffering figure of Christ before pushing open the heavy doors and stepping outside.
Originally published in December 1983 Ottawa South Report.