More about Sister Jane

Since I first posted about Sister Jane, I have talked further with her legal personal representative and her family, and reached a point where I can tell more of her story and how her life affected mine.

Sister Jane was Jane Mary McDonald, a professed nun in the Order of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. She was born in 1951. She was from Manchester, New Hampshire. She joined the Order as a postulant in 1972 when she was 20. In 1975, she met Sister Jeanne Wilfort, who had been in leadership positions in Holy Cross in Edmonton. Sister Wilfort was involved in a movement called PRH (Personality in Human Relationships) originated in France by a priest, Father Andrew Rochais. She came to New Hamphire to give a presentation. Jane didn’t know it, but the presentation was an introductory PRH workshop, now remembered by the American PRH organization as part of its early history. Sister Wilfort was encouraging younger nuns to come to Edmonton to study her approach to living the professed Religious life. From my perspective, PRH seems to be a personal growth movement, perhaps a cult, operating on the fringes of Catholicism. Under the influence of Sister Wilfort and other leaders of the Order, it seems to have had an influence on the Sisters of the Holy Cross.
Sister Jane came to Canada in 1975 and spent a year in Edmonton. During that time Sister Wilfort was working within the Order to set up a new spiritual community under her leadership. While she was not able to open a separate Holy Cross house, she was able to organize support to set up a communal living arrangement under the name of Maissons du Croissance or Homes for Growth. Homes for Growth was supported by Holy Cross and the Oblate Fathers. It was supposed to be a spiritual community and a retreat center offering services to other clergy and spiritual seekers. The first Home for Growth was in Lorette, Manitoba. The program grew and opened more houses later. Sister Wilfort later developed her own programs and grew apart from the main PRH movement in Canada

Sister Jane came to Manitoba in 1978, and stayed here for the rest of her life. She was a resident of the Lorette commune for about a year. It was during that time that Jane had the sexual experiences with Sister Wilfort that I mentioned in my first post about Sister Jane. Since most of the Holy Cross sisters in Manitoba were connected to Homes for Growth, Sister Jane had a hard time ending her connection to it. Since most of the Holy Cross sisters in Manitoba admired and supported Sister Wilfort, Jane became estranged from her Order. She took a job with the Salvation Army at one of its shelters for a few years. She founded her drop-in, Chez Nous, in 1987 and worked there until she was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2000. Through most of the year, Jane was under intensive treatment to manage her cancer. She went into remission in the fall.

Jane contacted the Superior General of Holy Cross in 1998 and 1999, and disclosed her experiences. The Superior did not take agree to take any steps to discipline Sister Wilfort or to assert any control over Homes for Growth.In December 2000, Sister Jane brought her story of sexual abuse and exclusion from her Order to James Weisgerber, the Archbishop of Winnipeg. He expressed concern about the direction the Homes for Growth movement had taken. He said had been concerned about PRH in Western Canada since his experiences with that movement as priest in Saskatchewan and as Bishop of Saskatoon. He listened to her respectfully and took her story seriously. He gave Jane financial support to make a trip to Ireland. But he said he had limited authority in Canon (Church) law to take action against Sister Wilfort for sexual abuse or to curtail the activities of Homes for Growth. He may have reported the matter to the authorities in the Vatican responsible for independent Religious Orders, because the Vatican appointed a retired Superior of the Grey Nuns of Montreal to visit Winnipeg and investigate the story. Jane never saw the report of that investigation.

By the spring of 2001, Jane was depressed and suicidal. She got help and started counselling with Cynthia Jordan, a psychologist, and Vicki Frankel, a social worker. After a few months of therapy, she began to consider leaving the Order, and seeking compensation for the sexual and emotional abuse she had experienced. That’s when I got into the story. I satisfied myself that Jane had been receiving good treatment from qualified, competent and ethical professionals, that her memory of abuse was genuine, and that the abuse had caused significant emotional harm. I started court proceedings but Sister Jane’s cancer came back before we had a hearing in Court, and she died in July, 2003.

I was uncomfortable that the Church’s designated episcopal authority had been unable to adjudicate Jane’s allegations against Sister Wilfort and Holy Cross internally in Canon law. I was uncomfortable with the way Holy Cross presented itself within the Church when it was questioned about how it was handling Jane’s claims. The Order and the lawyers for the Order treated Jane confrontationally in the legal proceedings, but defended their stance by blaming Jane for seeking civil justice and taking the matter to Court, and for not forgiving her abuser. Holy Cross treated Jane like any ordinary corporation treats a whistle-blower – it tried to discredit her within the Order and the Church while avoiding public discussion of the story. In another sense, she was treated worse than a whistle-blower because her willingness to take her grievance against Sister Wilfort, Holy Cross and Homes for Growth to Court was portrayed within the Church as an immoral attack on the Church itself and an abandonment of her religion. A whistle-blower loses past workplace associates. Jane lost spiritual sisters.
I have been left with questions about whether the Church’s Code of Canon law is adequate to secure the safety and financial security of clergy and professed religious who raise legitimate grievances against other members of the clergy. I have also been left with other questions about the meaning of religious freedom. The government and the public courts should not be attempting to regulate belief and theology, but the members of Churches and religious movements should be able to find justice within their religious institutions. It seems to me that the government has a fundamental role in securing the safety of members of churches and religious institutions from exploitation and abuse.

Working with Sister Jane led me to examine the way in which the Church responds to intellectual and emotional trends in the world. I am old enough to remember the excitement and fear that came from John XIII’s movement to open the windows, and to remember the debates about whether the Church had to become “relevant”.

Sister Jane caught the message of the politics of equality and reform through liberation theology and devoted herself to service to the poor.
Sister Wilfort caught the message that religion was an affective or emotional subjective experience. She used her power in the Order to create near-cult of self-actualization and personal growth. Her story illustrates the risk of corruption in locating religion in the affective realm of impulses and feelings – the risk in committing acts of self-gratification and abuse in God’s name.

The Church hierarchy has been much more harsh toward liberation theology than to cults and sects. Pope John Paul II, an old Cold Warrior, has been suspicious that liberation theology represented the penetration of Marxist teachings into the Church. At the same time, he is an advocate of bringing back traditional prayers and devotions that touch the feelings of the faithful. The Church has had a hard time teaching against affective New Age cults while it promotes tradition-based affective practices.

My anger and frustration over the Church’s response to Sister Jane’s story nearly led me out of the Church. My admiration for Jane’s honesty and devotion to her calling has helped me to stay.


One response to “More about Sister Jane”

  1. Jill Thornton Avatar
    Jill Thornton

    I would be ever so grateful if I could share my story abut sexual assault by a nun who was a PRH Educator in Australia. My reason for asking is to place my account of the abuse and lack of support from PRH International. I would like to contact the late Sister Jane McDonald’s family/ members of her congregation to express that such an abuse did (I believe occur) as I experienced something similar. It WAS the Therapeutic relationship within PRH that led to the climate and procedures which was abusive in itself, in the hands of nuns who lived a life of ‘POWER’ !!
    With thanks
    Jill Thornton