A JOURNEY JUST BEGUN
The Story of an Anglican Sisterhood
by The Sisterhood of St. John the Divine
Edited by Jane Christmas and Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD
Dundurn Press, 2015
272 pages, 130 colour illustrations, paperback
These sisters are doin’ it for themselves—and helping everyone else along the way.
A Journey Just Begun: The Story of an Anglican Sisterhood, published by Toronto-based publisher Dundurn Press Ltd., is a milestone of the 130th anniversary of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine (SSJD).
The sisterhood was the first of its kind to be set up in Canada, and while there were countless personalities that dominated the order over the years, it is still very much a collective of souls working for the greater good.
This humble, collaborative spirit becomes apparent from the title page onward—there is no author listed. It is only when one delves into the acknowledgments on the back page that it becomes clear that Toronto writer Jane Christmas is listed as having helped Canon Sr. Constance Joanna Gefvert, vocations co-ordinator, in writing and editing the text.
While more popularly known as a travel memoir writer, Christmas got to know the SSJD nuns after spending some time there as she contemplated taking vows, before publishing the book And Then There Were Nuns (2013). As such, Christmas brings both the outsider’s perspective to the book married with the respectful tone of someone who has, albeit briefly, lived the life of the sisters.
It would have been so easy to turn this book into an insular scrapbook, filling it with unexplained theological phrases, terminology and insider anecdotes, of little interest to the outside world and akin to attending your spouse’s company awards dinner. One could easily see such a thing happening in the cloistered world of nuns.
But that is not the case here.
The book begins with the sisterhood’s history, even before their 1884 founding, but the rest is an eclectic mix of poetry, art work, music and even recipes that is not overly familiar, but does allow the reader to enjoy some of the personality and the inner spiritual workings of the sisters. A good portion of the book includes a section devoted to their convent and guest house in Toronto. Each room gets its own chapter, preceded by a relevant Bible verse.
While the book highlights the steady stream of outside interests asking for the nuns’ help in running everything from orphanages to homes for unwed mothers to schools to, most famously, the hospital now known as St. John’s Rehab at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, it does not shy away from also chronicling that not all of their endeavours were successful, or, had simply run their course.
Over the years, the sisters have adapted their prayer schedules, but insist that prayer remain first and foremost in their daily lives—though the book does acknowledge the creeping demands of, say, tending to the ill.
Like the subject matter, the book is spiritually sensitive, but up for the intellectual rigour and ardour of the world we live in.
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Desmond Devoy is a newspaper reporter and broadcaster based in Smiths Falls, Ont.
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