“All the works of God proceed slowly and in pain. But then, their roots are the sturdier and their flowering the lovelier.” - Mother Theresa
SSNDs around the world can resonate with these profound words of our Foundress, Blessed Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger in these present times of sure uncertainty and rapid change.
Our Sisters in Canada are embracing a particular bittersweet reality as we let go of Notre Dame Convent (NDC), our former Canadian Province Motherhouse. As long as we have been futuring that reality, uppermost in our hearts has been the question, “What will happen to our cemetery?”
At the beginning of 2019, the NDC Implementation Work Group, chaired by Sister Maria Iannuccillo, invited the Sisters living at Notre Dame Convent to consider options to ensure the perpetual care of the NDC cemetery:
• SSND continues to care for NDC cemetery
• Create a trust with the Hamilton Diocese for perpetual care of NDC cemetery
• Move our sisters to the Gate of Heaven Diocesan Cemetery, actually returning home to a place once owned by us
To help inform our decision, John O'Brien, the episcopal delegate for cemeteries with the Catholic Cemeteries and insurance for the Diocese of Hamilton, met with the Sisters at NDC, explained what the options entailed, and answered any questions. He himself would oversee the operation and guaranteed that the whole process would be “conducted methodically, respectfully, with dignity.”
The decision to relocate our cemetery to the Gate of Heaven Cemetery, regardless of the sale of NDC, was not an easy one. It was reached in March only after a great deal of prayer, dialogue, and reflection. Once the decision was made to relocate the cemetery, the plan was to begin the relocation at the end of July. Going forward, the graves would then be maintained in perpetuity by the caretakers of the Catholic cemetery.
In June, a ritual committee (Sisters Delia Calis, Louise Vanderploeg, Rose Mary Sander and Harriet Schnurr) was formed to begin planning how to help our Sisters and staff prepare for and be an integral part of the cemetery relocation. Several beautiful rituals were created.
The first ritual, a Mass of Thanksgiving, was planned for Saturday, July 20, a day when the local Waterdown group and Sisters home from elsewhere gathered for a day of celebrating together. We began the day with a Mass of Thanksgiving and celebration of our Sisters who have gone before us. Our theme was “We remember! We celebrate! We bless!” The Mass used was the Eucharist of Thanksgiving of All Saints. Sister Rose Mary Sander began with a beautiful reflective PowerPoint, incorporating pictures of the NDC cemetery.
In anticipation of the relocation of our NDC cemetery, Cemetery Contemplative Walks were encouraged. Some sisters offered to drive and accompany others less mobile to the cemetery for a visit before the relocation would begin. “A Contemplative Closing Ritual” was prepared for use alone or with a friend. Once the news started spreading that NDC was selling and the cemetery being relocated, some family members and friends of our Sisters came to visit the cemetery one more time. They were invited to use the prepared ritual to guide them on a contemplative walk through the cemetery where 309 of our Sisters were buried between 1927 and 2019. On the monument at the back of the cemetery are the names of our Sisters buried in different locations (the monument will also be relocated to Gate of Heaven). After the singing or saying of “This is Holy Ground,” the participants were invited “to walk, wander, and recall with gratitude the sacred story of our Sisters buried here, their contribution to the Church and world of their time, and their places in SSND congregational history”.
May he support us all the day long until… the fever of our life is over and our work is done! Then in his mercy may he grant us a safe lodging and a holy rest and peace at the last. - John Henry Newman
A mural, a sort of ‘Wailing’ Wall, was posted in the Activity Room. Sisters and staff were encouraged to express their feelings there about this time of transition and letting go, as well as to jot down for what they are thankful. This was an opportunity to give creative expression to their inner voice. Feelings ranged from sadness to hope, gratitude to anger, longing to satisfaction. Some feelings were too deep for words.
A special Book of our Deceased Sisters, “Honouring our Loved Ones,” was artistically prepared and placed prominently at the back of Chapel, visible upon entry. All our Sisters buried in NDC cemetery and their year of death were listed in chronological order – from the first in 1927 to the last in 2019. Sisters would go through this book – calling to mind our deceased Sisters – or pray through the pages, grateful for our Sisters’ faithful witnessing.
As well, the names of our deceased Sisters were posted according to their year of death on wreaths. These wreaths were hung on the gates at the entrance to the chapel and on the podium at the front of chapel. When we had our weekly contemplative prayer, our Eucharistic Liturgies, adoration…we felt more closely united with our Sisters who had gone before us.
A special ritual of remembering Sisters’ legacies was prepared to take place in the NDC cemetery before the relocation process started. In preparation for this ritual, Sisters and staff met on Friday, July 26 to remember together the gifts and legacies of our deceased Sisters. Sister Rose Mary’s slides of the cemetery again set the tone for the gathering. Then Sister Delia invited the staff and Sisters to share in their small group' stories about Sisters they had known and the gifts they left with us. The Sister’s legacy or gifts were then written on one of the colorful butterflies. Sharing from each table was invited. Wonderful stories were shared by staff and Sisters alike. There was lots of laughter and many tears. Newer staff were particularly impressed by the sharing about Sisters they had never known. All agreed that this was a special time of sharing, but all too short.
On Saturday, July 27, before the movement of our Sisters to Gate of Heaven began, we had a sudden and unexpected death: Sister Petra Klotz. She was the first SSND to be buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery after her Mass of Resurrection was celebrated in the chapel at NDC. Our friendly and generous van driver dressed in his Sunday best and took about 25 to 30 Sisters to and from Gate of Heaven for Petra’s interment. He encouraged us to sing en route and back home in Petra’s memory. We even sang about her namesake, “Clementine”.
Prior to the relocation work beginning, on the morning of Monday, July 29, we had a beautiful ritual in the cemetery: “We remember. We Celebrate. We Bless and are Blessed!” We began by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnabeg. We most certainly were on Holy Ground. The Sisters’ earthly remains would be transferred to Gate of Heaven.
We heard: “Their spirit, personal presence, love, intercession continue to be one with us in the heart of God where there is space for all and where there are no boundaries of time, geography, history, etc.”
Our Foundress, Blessed Mother Theresa, also reminds us that this is so:
“We have no lasting dwelling here; our true homeland is in heaven – where the community includes all from all centuries, from all nations, from all ranks of society”. (MT Letters 11 and 3006)
At the end of the ritual, we offered blessing for the eight men entrusted with the sacred work of transferring our Sisters’ bodies to Gate of Heaven. We asked blessing of health and strength, reverence and skill, and protection and safety. Then we extended our arms above them and sang our Notre Dame blessing.
As we left the cemetery, Sisters, staff and workers carried the legacy and gifts of our Sisters symbolized on the butterflies created a few days prior and left them on the trees en route to the cemetery – showing a journey of sorrow, gratitude and blessing. We felt confident that their love, faithfulness and generosity would accompany us as we continued our journey serving the Triune God with joy. In the afternoon, this ritual was repeated for our less mobile Sisters on the third floor who were unable to join us in the cemetery. They posted their butterflies on a tree mural in their lounge.
On Wed., Aug. 7, the first of several rituals of recognition and gratitude for the Sisters whose remains were moved was read in the dining room and over the speaker system. This ritual was celebrated every two to three weeks, naming the sisters moved within that time frame. The gong sounded at the beginning and end of the reading of the Sisters’ names. This was followed by a moment of silence. The ritual also included a reading from You Are Sent and a prayer. This was also sent out to the local Waterdown listserv so our Sisters outside of Southern Ontario could join us in spirit. On Friday, Nov. 1 - All Saints Day - the last Sister was moved and relocation was complete. Alleluia!
On Wed., Nov. 6, a hearty breakfast for the cemetery workers was held at NDC. We wanted to show our gratitude and express thanks for their reverent care of our Sisters’ remains, not to mention completing the whole process in record time. We were happy to have Sisters Charmaine Krohe, Provincial Leader, Sharon Kanis (NDC Liaison) and Maria Iannuccillo (NDC IWG Chair) from the Provincial Council and our diocesan bishop, Bishop Douglas Crosby with us. John O’Brien, who oversaw the moving of the graves, was with us, too. After the breakfast and prior to our giving thanks, we celebrated the last ritual to remember Sisters moved to Gate of Heaven. The entire experience was very touching. Sister Vivian, NDC Local Leader, welcomed everyone. Each worker was invited to introduce himself; Sister Charmaine thanked each one personally. The Bishop offered a few words of thanks to the Sisters and the workers. We gave the eight cemetery workers our SSND blessing in gratitude for their ministry to us.
The official closing of Notre Dame Convent Cemetery took place at the cemetery on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020, with a deconsecration within the context of gratitude for the sacredness of the earth. Father Wayne Lobsinger, Vicar for Religious, represented the diocese. To read the prayer service, please click here.
After landscaping at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery is completed, the statuary from NDC will be moved to our SSND section there. On Sat., June 13, 2020, this new space will be blessed. The Bishop of the Hamilton Diocese, Douglas Crosby, OMI, will celebrate the Eucharistic Liturgy. Family, friends and staff will be invited.
(Written on behalf of the NDC Care Transition Task Force: Sisters Maria Iannuccillo, Vivian Zoller, Delia Calis, Louise Vanderploeg, Joyce Lorentz, and Tracy Robinson and Adrian Sayers - by Sister Joyce Lorentz).