A little over two years ago, in the early months of 2002, I started a court proceeding for a woman who ran a drop-in center at Higgins and Main, in the very deepest, poorest, most alcohol and drug addled part of Winnipeg’s inner City core. (I am, by the way, a lawyer by day). Sister Jane was, at that time, 50 and had been a Catholic nun since she 20. She was living alone, without the support of her religious congregation, and she had terminal cancer.
She had been raised in New Hampshire and joined her congregation as a young woman just at the time that memberships in the Catholic Religious Orders was plummeting. Soon after she joined her Order, she accepted an invitation from a Canadian nun, a self-styled visionary reformer, to move to Edmonton and then to Winnipeg to be part of an innovative spiritual commune.
It didn’t work for Sister Jane. The project tried to fuse transformational psychology with Catholic spirituality but it seems to have lost its connection to the Scriptures and the traditions of the Church. It became the leader’s personal project, and became whatever the leader wanted it to be. Jane found that her leader was controlling and grandiose. Jane swore in Affidavits that the leader introduced a purported therapy in which she initiated naked hugs which progressed to other sexual acts. Jane submitted sometimes but started to resist and react, which angered her leader, who disciplined her within the close confines of their communal life, and expelled her from the commune. She was then marginalized in her own Order because of her alienation from the leader and the rest of her Sisters who were connected to commune and the project.
Sister Jane had remained a member of her Order, but had started to live on her own. She received a little support to find a building and start a drop-in place but she had to recruit a board and to find funds for operating expenses and her own needs from a very early stage. She made friends, and her friends supported her and her ministry.
When she found that she had cancer, she sought some support from her superiors in the Order. In that process she described her personal experiences in the new movement, and she found that she was getting very little support. The Archbishop of Winnipeg listened to her and helped her personally with some other needs, but he did not intervene in the affairs of Jane’s autonomous Religious Order.
When I met Jane, her cancer was in remission and she was trying to understand if she could continue in that Religious Order, or if she had to leave. We started Court proceedings to recover compensation for the harm caused by illegal acts, her cancer came back in the winter of 2002-2003 and she died last summer. Her ministry was curtailed by her illness, and it closed for a while after she died. Her friends have been trying to revive it.
I visited her last spring, before her last hospitalization. Her ministry was based in an old three story bank building. The drop in was on the main floor and she lived in a suite on the upper floors. It was a small apartment, with a little chapel or prayer room. It was small oasis for her in a tough area of town and Jane lived with anxiety and fear.
When I had been discussing her evidence with her, I had tried to understand what she did at a drop-in. Did she provide a social service? Counselling? Teaching? Referrals to other agencies? Some kind of therapy? She explained it as living out the Church’s preferential option for the poor. I recognized that as an articulation of liberation theology, but I don’t think I started to understand it until later. What she did was to be present for people and to listen to them, providing them with a safety and respect. The theologian Rowan Williams, in his book Christ on Trial, How the Gospel Unsettled our Judgment
God’s transcendence is in some sense present in and with those who do not have a voice, in and with those without power to affect their world, in and with those believed to have lost any right they might have had in the world. God is not with them because they are naturally virtuous, or because they are martyrs; he is simply there in the fact that they are ‘left over’ when the social and moral score is added up by the managers of social and moral behaviour.
What strikes me about Sister Jane’s work is that she was able to carry on while she herself was deeply wounded. I think I have only been able understand the value of her ministry as I have begun to experience my own pain and powerlessness over the events and the people in my life, and when I have needed to have people listen to me.
Last week a common friend of Jane’s and mine told me that Sister Jane had seen that I was going through some changes – as I certainly have been. I was simply moved to tears that she had the compassion to see me clearly while I thought I was helping her.