WINNIPEG — She’s raised a family, lived alone after her marriage failed and now Yvonne Roberts is spending nine months incubating the possibility of a Christian vocation.
“I’m discerning my place in life, the kind of people I want to be around and the kind of life I want to live,” explains the substitute teacher and grandmother, of the journey she began in September.
Until next May, Roberts of Lac du Bonnet, northeast of Winnipeg, will live with two Catholic nuns, members of the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, more commonly known as the Grey Nuns, who have opened up their lives and their modest Winnipeg bungalow to her as she contemplates her next step in life.
“They’re like sisters to me,” Roberts, 58, says of her life with Jo-Ann Duggan and Elaine Baete, who were novice nuns together nearly 40 years ago.
“I feel that I’m living with two of my sisters. They take care of me.”
Recently designated as a place of discernment, the house can accommodate up to two women at a time looking for direction on whether to become a Grey Nun, join another religious order, or take another path entirely, explains Duggan, 59.
“There were a few inquiries asking about where to go to discern their vocation,” explains Duggan, a former administrator and spiritual care provider now recuperating from foot surgery.
“As we meet unmet needs in society, it was decided (that) we open our residence to (women) to seek their vocation.”
“It means a time to set oneself apart, to pray, to be still and just to listen to the prompting of God and spirit calling you forth to respond,” adds Baete, 54, who works as a campus minister at the University of Manitoba.
“It’s through prayer, through Scripture, through silent meditation and spiritual direction.”
As part of the discernment process, Roberts volunteers in the community, pays room and board and helps with household chores. She also is expected to spend time alone in daily prayer and join the sisters in their evening prayers, as well as participating in regular community outings, like attending a play or concert.
“It gives them a nine-month period to allow them to enter the inward journey,” explains Duggan of the transition to religious life. “It’s difficult because people are coming from an active lifestyle to a more inner lifestyle.”
With a history of more than 270 years in Canada, the Grey Nuns have a long record of helping the community. Founded in Montreal in 1737 by Marguerite d’Youville, who was declared a saint in 1959, it was the first order to come to Western Canada, where it established several helping institutions, such as the St. Boniface General Hospital, Tache Centre and St. Mary’s Academy. Their former headquarters adjacent to the St. Boniface Cathedral is now a museum, and most of the remaining sisters live at the Tache Centre or Residence Despins.
Once a thriving Christian order with thousands of members, the Grey Nuns have dwindled to a few dozen in Manitoba, most of them elderly. Including Duggan and Baete, only three nuns are under 65, and the Grey Nuns are facing difficult decisions about their future viability.
At their upcoming general chapter meeting in 2011, members will discuss what’s next for their group, which has an average age of 79, says sister general Jacqueline St.-Yves.
“I’m a firm believer in living fully in the present moment,” she says from her office in Montreal. “We can’t look back too much to the past and the future is not clear. We have to be open to whatever the future holds for us.”
That’s advice Roberts is taking to heart. Not content to continue her life the way it was, she’s taking solace in her daily rituals and not rushing a decision to join a religious community.
“I’m taking it slow and I’m enjoying the time of silence and the time of community sharing,” she says.