Mother Catherine of Our Lady of Providence is the prioress of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns of the Carmel of St. Joseph monastery in Spruce Grove, Alberta. Mother Catherine was a member of the Sisters of Providence for 20 years. She joined the Carmelites at age 37 in 1981 and came to the Edmonton area in 2014. As of 2024, there are five professed Carmelite nuns at the Carmel of St. Joseph monastery. Watch her episode of Be Not Afraid here.
Mother Catherine has been a religious sister for 62 years.
Do you remember the first time you thought of religious life for yourself?
Yes! I was actually in Grade 5, 10 or 11 years old. We used to have the Franciscan seminarians coming over in Montreal every two weeks, to teach us about religious life and their mission work.
One day, this young seminarian asked our school class what we wanted to do when we finished school. One of the girls in my class – Frances – said “I want to become a nun to know and love and serve God.”
I recognized that as the Catechism answer for why God created us. It hit me. It blew my mind: I want to do that! I want to know and love and serve God. That made me think of religious life. I can still remember where that girl was sitting in the classroom and that feeling of being spurred on to know and love God.
Was that desire for religious life consistent in your youth?
It stayed consistent, but I also loved children and I thought of marriage. But in the back of my mind, I always wanted to be a bride of Christ.
Before I was a Carmelite, a cloistered nun, I was a member of an active community of religious sisters, and right before I made my final vows I went to speak with this elder priest to discuss my discernment of my vocation. I had to take two buses to get to his parish.
I think every child in the city was on that bus. I was really struggling with the fact that I wouldn’t be a biological mother. Then I realized how I could be a mother. I could be a spiritual mother, with Christ as my spouse and the world as my children.
How old were you when you decided to join a religious community?
I was in Grade 12 – and I had been volunteering in a local hospital and I got to know Sisters who worked at the hospital. I was also taught by Sisters at my high school. I really got to speak to these Sisters and ask them about their life and to also speak with my parish priest.
I ended up entering with the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent De Paul in Kingston, Ont. when I was 17 years old. They were the same community of Sisters who worked at the hospital and school.
Was there a particular part of religious life that drew you?
I really just loved the idea of giving myself to God and becoming a Bride of Christ.
I must say that I was not enthralled with the habit (that the Sisters of Providence) wore at the time. It was very complicated, and so it wasn’t externally attractive to me. But I loved the joy of the Sisters and a good atmosphere around the Sisters. There were 45 girls in my novitiate and it was a good fit!
Were you ever fearful of religious life?
I mean – yes – a fear of the unknown, if I would actually “make it” as a nun.
But we’re talking about the early 1960s and, at the time, religious life was quite familiar to my peers and I. We had been taught by Sisters. We communicated with them regularly. We grew up with Catholic families and in a Catholic community. So I don’t think I was that fearful. I may have wondered if I would be happy – but not fearful.
Why did you think you might not be happy?
Well, I’m not exactly sure but I did think, “Is this really the place for me?” But underneath I was happy!
My parents were a little bit against it because I was so young. They thought I should grow up, but they too said “if this is going to make you happy, then go for it.” And I did find such joy when I entered. I just came alive!
My father especially was supportive. My mother didn’t quite understand because she was a convert from the Salvation Army, so she had a hard time understanding. But when she saw that I was happy – along with my brothers and sisters – she was accepting.
You were with the Sisters of Providence for 20 years and then you joined the Carmelites as a cloistered nun in 1981. How did joining the Carmelites come about?
That’s right. I joined the Carmelites when I was 37 years old. I had become a nurse with the Sisters of Providence and I actually spent three years in Camrose, serving as a nurse there, as well as getting my nursing degree at the University of Alberta.
Then, later on, I served with my community’s missions in Guatemala for seven years. It was there in Guatemala that I learned, in discernment, that God was calling me to a contemplative form of religious life with the Carmelites.
Through all my time in prayer and developing that personal relationship with the Lord – and I was very active, living with the Indigenous peoples in the highlands – there was this increased calling from the Lord to be His and His alone.
He said “You are mine, and I am yours.” It was difficult telling my superiors at the time, and they suggested that I go see this retired bishop to continue discerning. We went through the Ignatian discernment exercises and then through that we were convinced that the Lord was calling me to be cloistered and contemplative.
For sure, any active Sister also needs to be a contemplative, because we can’t do anything without God.
How do you look at these two chapters of your life – your years with the Sisters of Providence and now as a Carmelite?
I don’t think it was a mistake that I was with the Sisters of Providence! It really formed me well. I still keep in contact with them, my Sisters there. I see it as an intense vocation – my vocation – because God was calling me to a more radical intimacy with him, for the world.
There was one sister from the Poor Clares community in Guatemala and she had also been a “transfer sister,” and I asked her why she had transferred from an active community to a contemplative community and she said because “the world was too small for me!” She wanted to take on the whole world.
And I thought that was a good answer. God can work through prayer and through intercession to help the whole world. But I have a great admiration for the active Sisters and all they do.
What is one of the greatest joys of life as a cloistered Carmelite?
I think just being able to live with total communication with God. Because we are cloistered, we have that privilege of always being in the presence of God and being able to work in silence, to have the Eucharist every day as a sacrament.
Every day I wake in the morning and go to the choir where we pray the Divine Office and I always thank the Lord for being here with us – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. It is also wonderful to live in community with other sisters who are like-minded.
What part of cloistered Carmelite life was initially difficult for you?
One of the things I found hard at first was how scheduled it was. Coming from Guatemala – where there was much less of a schedule – and then coming to such a rigorous schedule, it could be difficult. But then I realized that it was my attitude and hadn’t learned yet to really live in the presence of God.
There was one point in my life, I just sat in the chapel and I was just mad at St. Therese of Lisieux (a Carmelite saint). I just didn’t understand her. I thought she was too “flowery.” I remember sitting there and saying to the Lord “I really think you made a mistake by making St. Therese a saint. I don’t see why!”
I was really struggling with [the Carmelite life]. But in the back of my mind I just saw God laugh. From that time on, I think St. Therese took me by the hand and showed me about what this life is all about: loving God. So now I love her of course. She’s so deep. So selfless. She’s amazing.
Today, religious life is much less common than when you were growing up. Do you think that young women are more fearful of a religious vocation because it seems more foreign to them?
Yes, I think that is a big part of it. But I also think that the media and the exposure that so many young adults have to the Internet and the secular worldview, portrays priests and religious as “other than.”
So many people don’t even have time to think these days – to think of how they are loved by God, how God is calling them to be with him in personal relationship.
I think it must be very, very difficult for young women to think of religious life as a permanent commitment because they don’t see that permanent commitment even in marriage, with so much divorce and separation. They don’t see that permanent commitment in their jobs. They are often changing jobs and moving place to place.
My father had a job as a young boy and ended up in the same company when he died. There was that permanency that is often not there anymore.
How can vocations to religious life grow in our Archdiocese?
By allowing young adults – in parishes – to have times of adoration and to really come to know Christ and to pray and to receive the sacraments.
I think it has got to have this foundation of a love for Christ. That is where a religious vocation comes from. From a relationship with Christ, someone can see the beauty of a religious vocation and then they can actually want a religious vocation.
It is so important to let people know that there are people who are happy as religious sisters!
I remember one priest came and visited us at the first Carmelite convent that I lived at and he was in the chapel and we were all in the kitchen. We were just laughing away. Afterwards he said to me “you know, I’ve never heard that laughter from someone who is in the world.”
I told him, we are free. We are joyful. We’re not sad!
With the Archdiocese – we can promote religious life as the good calling that it is. It makes people happy! The world needs it.
Pope Francis said “The fate of humanity is decided by the prayerful hearts and uplifted hands of contemplative women.” And that’s every women, not just contemplative women. The fate of humanity is in our hands.
We need Christ. We need God. We have to show the world that God is enough. He can fulfill all of our desires. We will have peace. . . if we conform to Christ and follow the Gospel.
What would you say to someone who is discerning religious life?
I think just: Be not afraid! Give yourself to God and he will take over. He is there.
I love this quote from Pope Benedict XVI: “Dear young people, the happiness you are seeking, the happiness you have a right to enjoy has a name and a face: it is Jesus of Nazareth, hidden in the Eucharist. Only he gives the fullness of life to humanity! With Mary, say your own ‘yes’ to God, for he wishes to give himself to you.”
Be not afraid! Give it all to Christ, and you will find happiness!
Watch the video version of Mother Catherine’s story here.
Learn more about the Edmonton Carmelites here.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity)
Jenny Connelly – Archdiocese of Edmonton
Be Not Afraid is series of videos and companion articles that tell the stories of 12 religious sisters and priests who serve within the Archdiocese of Edmonton. Be Not Afraid seeks to tell the stories of local vocations in a way that dispels trepidation and reveals the joy and fulfillment that comes from opening our lives to Christ.
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