Elizabeth M. Smyth (ed.), Changing Habits: Women’s Religious Orders in Canada, Novalis, Saint Paul University, Ottawa, Canada, 2007.

Elizabeth M. Smyth, editor, Changing Habits: Women’s Religious Orders in Canada, Novalis, Saint Paul University, Ottawa, Canada, 2007. NPG, ISBN 978-2-89507-903­-3 (paperback), $32.95 CND, pp. 309.


Reviewed by Mary Lyons, RSM, JCD (Saint Paul University), PhD (University of Ottawa).

In the thirteen chapters of this book, Elizabeth M. Smyth, editor, has presented an impressive overview of a broad and important subject: the rise and growth of a variety of religious orders of women in Canada. The thirteen contributors, including Smyth herself, have given us a fascinating, albeit necessarily brief, glimpse into the amazing stories of those intrepid pioneers of education and health care in Canada and beyond, from as early as 1639.

In her Introduction, Smyth states that this collection of essays is a sample of research currently in progress on historical and contemporary Roman Catholic women religious in Canada. She highlights two challenges facing researchers in this field: access to archives and the dismissive attitude of some academics (p. 10). Inherent in these challenges is the danger that the contribution of women religious will be ignored and, therefore, never known or understood. She acknowledges that much work has been done by English and French scholars, but that a greater effort is needed to integrate women religious into mainstream Canadian history. She stresses the need for a comparative study of vowed women in the various faith traditions as well as a study of international congregations.

In Chapter 1, Sheila Andrew examines the contribution made by convent schools to the development of the French language in late nineteenth-century New Brunswick, at a time when the survival of the language was under threat because of urbanisation, geographical and social mobility all well as government policies, all of which favoured English as the lingua franca. Andrew’s research into convent archives and school records indicates that women religious teachers played a large part in the promotion of bilingualism, as well as the development of French as the language of work, social life, and culture.

Elizabeth W. McGahan, in Chapter 2, traces the role played by the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception, from the mid 1850s until 2002, in schools in St John, New Brunswick, in a context which was marked by sectarianism and fraught relationships between women religious and the male hierarchy.

In Chapter 3, Mary Olga McKenna, SC, deals with the Sisters of Charity of Halifax, a major congregation involved in all levels of the education system in Canada. From the 1970s the focus on formal education changed to stress education in the broadest sense. New and unmet challenges presented themselves in the form of immigrants, adult faith formation and advocacy on behalf of the marginalised, with particular emphasis on the preferential option for the economically poor, and with special emphasis on women.

Heidi MacDonald presents in Chapter 4 a case study of the Sisters of Charity of Halifax to highlight her belief that the large numbers of women entering religious life during the Great Depression of the 1930s was another aspect of the coming of age process of young women, rather than a choice motivated by economic exigency or the desire to seek refuge and security.  Her study shows that, contrary to received opinion, the number of women entering religious congregations did not increase dramatically, but remained relatively constant during the Great Depression.

In Chapter 5, Rebecca Sullivan endeavours to demystify the perception of convents as sinister places.  They had become targets for suspicion and lurid scandals in places like Montreal. The fact that some congregations had their origins in Europe left them open to the suspicion of bringing an antiquated culture to Canada. The large convents and the elaborate habits the sisters wore fuelled the imaginations of the biased and the curious, culminating in stories so outrageous and sensational that they beggared belief.

In Chapter 6, Tania Martin evokes a bygone, devotional age in her poetic description of the elaborate decorations that marked the paths of processions in the Motherhouse of the Grey Nuns of Montreal. Shrines, grottoes, gardens, statues, religious paintings, Saints’ names on schools, dormitories, hospitals, featured widely. No expense was spared on the furnishings of chapels in an effort, one presumes, to make them more conducive to reflection and prayer.

In Chapter 7, Siobhan Nelson deals with the role played by the Sisters of Providence of Montreal, in providing health care in the American Pacific North West from 1858 to 1900 and in spearheading the professionalisation of nursing. Confident and competent, armed with pistols, sleeping under the stars, these intrepid women braved the wild terrain of a relatively untamed land to beg for money to fund their mission, and did so with admirable success.

Christine Lei, in Chapter 8, traces the growth of the Loretto Sisters as a congregation of educators in various parts of Ontario from 1847. Inevitably, as with so many other congregations, the Loretto Sisters’ relationship with diocesan bishops in the context of the supervision of schools was fraught. Interesting statistics are provided concerning the ancestry of members of this congregation. The role of the lay sisters, whose contribution to the success of the mission, was incalculable, is also touched upon. This brief study serves to highlight the need for ongoing and extensive research into the nature of a Loretto education and how it differed from the education offered in other schools

In Chapter 9, writing with the benefit of an insider’s perspective, and with access to archival sources and oral tradition, Veronica O’Reilly, CSJ, presents a fascinating account of the separation of the Sisters of St Joseph of Pembroke from the Sisters of St Joseph of Peterborough. The involvement, legitimate or otherwise, of diocesan bishops is raised. With regard to differences that arise in various records of this episode, O’Reilly raises the question of how records are often skewed according to the perspective of the recorder.

In Chapter 10, Elizabeth M. Smyth takes two teaching sisters, Sr Mary Lenore Carter, a Sister of Charity of Providence of Montreal and Sr Genevieve Williams, an Ursuline sister,  as examples of two women who demonstrated two different types of educational leadership in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Canada. These women were far ahead of their time in their conviction of the value of a quality education, good health care and social service.

In Chapter 11, Ellen Leonard, CSJ, traces the involvement of religious women in theology between 1955 and 1980, including 1962 to 1965, the period of the Second Vatican Council. Before the Vatican Council, women religious were hamstrung by rules and regulations, most of which were monastic in origin, with every aspect of their lives directed by the 1917 Code of Canon Law. After the Vatican Council, women religious embraced the freedom to renewal and adaptation that Perfectae caritatis gave them.

Rosa Bruno-Jofré presents a very interesting essay in Chapter 12. She focuses on the leadership provided by three General Superiors who stewarded the Missionary Oblate Sisters through different phases and crises of a process of renewal from 1963 to 1989, with varying degrees of success. This study serves to highlight the profound and sincerely held motivations and understandings of religious life and mission that each General Superior brought to her office. It also provokes questions about conformity, about community, and about mission when we are dealing with the infinite variety of personalities that constitute a religious congregation.

In Chapter 13, Jacqueline Gresko examines the emergence of the Sisters of Saint Ann in British Columbia alongside the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, their male counterparts. Gresko contends that the history of missionary endeavours in British Columbia is a gendered story in which the women religious were virtually on the fringe, and subordinate to the male congregations, irrespective of the fact that both were involved in basically the same work albeit with a different focus. This essay raises serious questions that resonate with many women religious throughout the world.

Elizabeth M Smyth has assembled a fascinating collection of essays that open the door to historical treasures that need to be researched so that the contribution made by women religious in Canada will not be buried in the mists of time and lost forever to posterity. Endnotes after each chapter and a good index add to the value of this very interesting and important study.