REFLECTIONS ON THE COURAGE TO DARE: THE SPIRITUALITY OF CATHERINE DONNELLY, FOUNDER OF THE SISTERS OF SERVICE

The book launch introduction by

Kathryn Perry, author

Very early in my research, I read a line in Catherine’s letters that I knew right away must become the title for this book. She wrote: “I had to have the courage to dare.” I came across Elizabeth Johnson’s book, Quest For the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (Continuum, 2011), after the completion of the manuscript, The Courage to Dare. I was very excited to read the following:

…while the outcome of our own life, and that of the world is not yet known, we can have confidence that it is an adventure held safe in God’s mercy. Faith then becomes an act of courage. We can dare to hope (p. 44).

Reading these words, I felt a flood of appreciation and affirmation for Catherine Donnelly’s vision of ministry and mission, for her spiritual message, for her zest and endurance in her lifelong quest to bring a vision of this theology to life in the world. These words could have been spoken by Catherine, and long before Vatican II, but in Johnson’s book they speak of Karl Rahner’s theology, which became influential during and after the Second Vatican Council and helped to shape the modern church. Catherine was a visionary. Of that I have no doubt. Her wisdom was prophetic and her radical fidelity to her vision for the Church in Canada is legendary. Confidence, adventure, courage and daring are words that pepper Catherine’s letters and writings, especially when she writes about faith. She saw her life of faith as a romantic adventure – it was God writing straight with crooked lines.

During the summers of 1934 and 1936 Catherine Donnelly found herself living the adventure of a lifetime in the Cariboo Mountains of British Columbia. This experience seems to have fanned the flames of her sense of missionary adventure and kept them burning brightly for the rest of her life. Imagine, if you can, a woman in her fifties accompanied by young Sister Irene Faye, 24 years old – a novice from Toronto. These two women, carrying all of their provisions with them set off in an Essex Super Six car full of a few camping supplies, some chains for the tires and a load of catechetical materials. Treacherous driving conditions, including slippery roads, hairpin turns, and torrential downpours put Catherine’s driving skills to the test. She relished the challenge of seeking out the settler families, getting to know them, teaching their children – all the while living in very primitive conditions. Her letters reveal the great joy she experienced doing this type of missionary work. The images we have of Catherine from this time reveal a pioneer woman with great physical endurance, capable and practical in a setting with few amenities, and at ease with a variety of different kinds of people, determined to encounter as many settlers as possible to let them know that they were not forgotten. Literally breaking through barriers for the sake of others, this experience of daring, courage and bravery fueled her with confidence and enthusiasm.

Catherine’s strong practical bent comes through everything she left us as a legacy to her thought, her vision and her spirituality. She saw no dividing line between civil and religious life – but it was her unique orientation towards both that made her vision so exceptional. The love of God, Catherine knew and taught, is made known to us in the very concreteness of our lives. For that reason, everything she proposed, envisioned and struggled for emerged from her lived experience of becoming human in the world as it is, with a vision of how it could be. She never abandoned her encounter with the world as it was to go chasing after a spiritual dream. She strongly believed the dream was presently possible, that the raw materials of a better future were at hand, and that faith and intelligence made possible what fear and ignorance denied.

In the wilderness, on the frontiers, in the face of extreme poverty, prejudice, alienation and marginalization, Catherine found what she needed to activate the seeds of faith that were lying dormant among desperate people. She attended to root growth in community development. She adopted a stance of listening and seeing “little things.” She believed that successful models of mission spoke for themselves about what the Holy Spirit was up to in the work of the SOS. They were “fruits” – evidence. These were her arguments and explanations of the feasibility of the original vision and inspiration of the Sisters of Service.

Catherine Donnelly protested against the maxim of “Thinking Big” by promoting and nurturing her vision for the agrarian life and culture of families of farmers on the Prairies. She was outspoken about the danger of rampant urbanization and the consequences of that trend for farming and for the greater well-being of Canadians. Her words about the matter were simply spoken, but there is great wisdom in them. Wendell Berry speaks of “thinking little” in one of his agrarian essays, and he explains what he means by that in a way that resonates with Catherine’s concerns.

He says,

“A good farmer who is dealing with the problem of soil erosion on an acre of ground has a sounder grasp of that problem and cares more about it and is probably doing more to solve it than any bureaucrat who is talking about it in general.” (The Art of the Commonplace, 87)

Catherine Donnelly advocated and practiced this way of thinking little – humbly and earnestly becoming personally involved in the intricacies and the particularities of each community in which she worked. In The Courage to Dare, I speak about her orientation towards the work of the missions.

“From their unique social location within the rural public schools, the Sisters were able to discern the desperate needs of families because of their contact with the children.

In Catherine’s words, intelligence and eyes of faith could discern how to negotiate between “need and feasibility.” The same practical understanding of the need for discernment within particular social locations guided many of the reforms of Vatican II.”  (TCTD, 135)

Catherine’s concern for farmers, it turns out, was well founded. She understood that agriculture, in the form of the family farm, was an integration of relationships, dependencies and responsibilities. Moreover, she understood this culture to have a deeply spiritual dimension that fostered reverence for creation, for the earth, for the community, the family and the self. Farming life was not just another employment enterprise, in other words. For her, it was a vulnerable culture that held within it spiritual promises that were in danger of being lost forever.

Arriving in the West as a fully qualified teacher, Catherine recognized that the rural public school could serve as a base of operations for mission work in the frontier regions of a quickly growing rural population. She responded to a religious vocation that, rather than sending her from this rural place of great need, sent her right into the thick of it.

In the early years of the 1920s Catherine was suggesting something very radical to the Canadian Catholic Church. She was suggesting a full certification in teacher or nursing training combined with a full formation in religious life for women who would be expected to step over a variety of boundaries in both civic and religious life to serve the poor. Not cloistered, but living among the people they served, the women of the SOS were so far outside the norm for religious women that some questioned whether they could be called Sisters at all.

Sister Catherine Donnelly did not let prevailing custom stand in the way of answering the cry of the poor – she was one among many who knew that the “Church as it was” must become the “Church that it could be” in order to answer the call of the Gospel. It was by reflecting on the fruitful work of people like Catherine Donnelly that the reforms of Vatican II were suggested, considered and debated. The documents reflect a Church that learns as well as teaches. I agree, therefore, with those who say that Catherine Donnelly can be called a Mother of Vatican II.

Catherine left us much to ponder as we consider the deeper implications of her spirituality and her vision for our own times.  One invitation is to appreciate and more clearly understand the theology of encounter that grounded Catherine throughout her life. This theology – this way of knowing God in the everyday circumstances of her life – is consistent throughout all of her actions, her letters, her writings, her plans and constructions of missions. It is a theology of the personal. God was not an abstract proposition, a belief, an idea in Catherine’s life – God was real, a loving and compassionate presence, opening her eyes to the needs of human beings as well as to the possibilities present in each situation. Catherine’s personal encounter with God launched her over barriers and obstacles to love and to do justice in the adventure of ministry and mission.

Adventure, daring, courage and hope are characteristics of Catherine’s spiritual disposition of radical trust. They are a stark contrast to a disposition of burden, worry, tiredness and despair. I believe Catherine’s legacy invites us to a crossroads in choosing which disposition we will embody as the people of God today and in the future. I thank the Sisters of Service for introducing me to Sister Catherine Donnelly – a true Canadian Catholic pioneer woman. It has been a privilege and a joy to encounter her spirit and a blessing to have been asked to articulate this spirituality for the Sisters of Service and for all of us.

I will close my comments with a quote from Catherine. It was advice that she offered, in her older years, to younger Sisters, but I think it can speak to all of us:  “Now is the time to dare fearlessly with all your might and trust in God.”

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About Kathryn Perry

Kathryn Perry, MDiv, is an alumna of Regis College, Toronto. She is the author of The Courage To Dare: The Spirituality of Catherine Donnelly, Founder of the Sisters of Service (Novalis 2013).
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2 Responses to REFLECTIONS ON THE COURAGE TO DARE: THE SPIRITUALITY OF CATHERINE DONNELLY, FOUNDER OF THE SISTERS OF SERVICE

  1. Sister Adua Zampese says:

    Kathy, good idea to put your presentation in your blog, I thank you for both emails, lovely picture of you in the first one.

    Blessings and once again, thanks,

    Adua

  2. heather says:

    It was lovely to meet some of the sisters who served with Catherine,
    I felt her presence there in some of those she inspired. Awed by her compassion, and she inspires me to open myself to those around me in need!

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