Saturday, April 21, 2018

Formation Convocation


On the weekend of April 12-15, I attended a Formation Convocation in Chicago with my community, the Felician sisters. I joined 51 of our sisters: those in leadership, in varying stages of formation, and those in formation. What I expected to be a meeting turned out to be a community retreat where we reflected on formation that is centered in a relationship with God. We shared personally in small groups. Activities were planned that facilitated deep group discussions, too. In one of them, formators and those in formation took turns discussing their responses to reflection questions about the current formation process. The sisters who listened were moved by the personal disclosure of those in initial formation; those who disclosed were touched by the love and support they experienced. They trusted that what they said would be accepted with love and honor. It was an experience of accompaniment for us all.
I was a part of a panel that shared how our family life provided an experience of the transcendent. I had said yes to the invitation to respond to this question in the presence of community, despite the fact that my childhood had yielded a more deformed than transcendent image of God and the Catholic Church. My background includes divorce, anger and hurt feelings, lapsed Catholicism, and all the issues that come with them. I reflected on the topic for a week before the Convocation, but arrived in Chicago unsure of what I would say to my sisters.
On the day of the panel, the presenter shared personally about how her parents and childhood experiences influenced her image of God. By that point of the weekend, the Holy Spirit was definitely moving among us. I could feel the love in the room, and my fears subsided. I was opening up to the presence of God in our midst, especially present in the hearts of my sisters. I told my story with the rest of the panelists—unfiltered, without holding back. As I spoke, I could feel the support and encouragement of my sisters, and I knew that it was received in love. Later, several of them approached me, thanking me for sharing. I was glad that I did! It’s risky to be vulnerable, but it was a blessing to receive their sisterly love.
At the end of the weekend, we reflected on the experience. We agreed that sincere disclosure and trusting vulnerability had been met by deep listening and loving acceptance. It was a Spirit-filled time of authenticity and growth. Many of us noticed the disparity between what transpired and what daily life was like at our convents. The realization was voiced: Why don’t we self-disclose? How little we know each other! Spiritual goals were formed: Be vulnerable! Respectfully receive what others share! Tell my stories! Go deeper in daily conversations! 
I made one, too: To remember how openly I had shared and how lovingly it was received.

Here are some photos of some of us younger members from the weekend:






Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Transcendence


What in your family life opened you to the transcendent? What in your family life challenged or deformed your understanding of the transcendent?

One definition of transcendent that I read this was “of God, apart from and not subject to the limitations of the material universe.” My sisters and I attended and completed CCD and received the sacraments. Mom made sure that we went to the weekly classes at the parish. How we practiced the faith was less than faithful, though. We went to Mass as a family on Easter and Christmas; Mom included Palm Sunday in that list, too. She was vocal about her issues with the teaching of the Catholic Church, particularly when it came to divorce and being pro-life.  We were encouraged by her example to doubt and question the Church. Looking back, the environment of my childhood was pretty secular. The practice of religion wasn’t part of my daily life, not at home or at school, since I went to public school. I had some extended family who were devout Catholic, and I did see them sometimes.

I was raised with clear values, though. Mom was strict about us sticking to those values.  She believed strongly that family members should be loyal to each other. As children grow up, it tends to become less attractive to spend time with younger siblings, but she made sure that we looked out for each other. She valued honesty and hard work, too. She was strict about most everything, but we always knew that we were safe, and that she could find a way to help in any situation.

She was an immensely practical woman. It was at least partly born of necessity. She was a single, working mother, who raised us alone. Dad paid child support and had visitation, but was pretty unreliable. She must have envisioned, in the advanced placement classes that I was taking and the grades that I received, a better life for me.  She became a cheerleader for my future. She would strongly extol the value of having a competitive, successful career, and put down other options.  I emerged from this environment with high self-esteem and a very defined sense of identity.

The first challenge to this mindset came when I was in college.  I became active in Campus Ministry, and did a lot of volunteering. I discovered the value of giving and receiving from others. I experienced God’s call for the first time, through service to His people. It made me want to devote my life to helping others, and I decided to get my Masters in Elementary Education. It was a different choice than I was raised to make; I was inspired and it felt right.  My big career path was turning out to be more narrow than it had seemed, with less freedom than I thought. When I was in initial formation, I was challenged to question and broaden that identity more. That process was painful, but ultimately truly transcendent, as I grew in receptivity to God’s will.

I wasn’t raised to consider religious life—or even to be religious, period. But the limitations of what I was raised to consider important or normal quickly became apparent to me as I reached adulthood. I didn’t want to pursue secular goals; I had experienced how shallow they were.  I loved to go to church because it was one place that I could truly dream. The one place where everything seemed hopeful and full of possibility: the world, the future, and me, too.

My family was mostly confused by my decision to enter the Felician Sisters. They weren’t surprised, but still, they didn’t really understand the lifestyle. They were willing to ask questions and I was willing to answer them, though. Over the years since then, too, they’ve been journeying with me. They’ve seen that I’m happy and that’s important to them. They also understand better what it means to live in community. My life as part of a religious community is definitely different from my upbringing, but my family did prepare me for it in one way: I have always known what it meant to be a part of a community that cared for each other and was there for one another through thick and thin.


Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Writing the biography


In my last blog entry, I shared excerpts of text and photos from the biography that I wrote about Sister Celeste, who is a missionary in Tulita of the Northwest Territories of Canada. In this entry, I’d like to share my reflections on the experience of writing the biography.
                The assignment didn’t originate within the community. The person who asked me to do it is our provincial minister, but the biography was requested by the Sacred Congregation in the Vatican. They asked each Congregation to submit a biography of at least one member who is a missionary. The decision to choose Sister Celeste wasn’t mine; that part was assigned, too. However, I probably would have chosen her. I knew that she had been in mission in the Northwest Territories for a long time, and that she is highly respected by both the people she ministers to and the sisters in our community.
                The process began with Google. I knew that Sister Celeste had already done at least one interview and had heard that she was the recipient of several awards. I found more than I thought I would: multiple interviews, considerable coverage of the awards she received, and other articles and blogs about the geographical area and the community there. I also looked into our Felician history, specifically the book about the congregation that was written, and at our Felician web sites. I was able to do enough research to create a working draft of a biography. I knew that the rest of the information would have to come from the archive in Canada, at the convent where she entered the community.
                At the same time, I was also making phone calls. The first call was to the archivist in Canada, to plan my trip there. After some research, I called Sister Celeste to schedule an interview, which we did over the phone. I then booked my flight to the archive in Canada and did what was needed to communicate my plans.
                The materials that they had in the archive were interesting. They included books she had written, her personal correspondence, the awards she had won, and the records that she kept of her ministries. An additional source was the sisters who lived in the convent. They were eager to tell me stories about Sister Celeste and her ministries. Several of them had been there for short term ministries or a visit and wanted to share their experiences. These conversations gave me a great sense of who Sister Celeste was and what she is actually doing. They also showed me how much she is loved and respected by the people there, and how much she returns their esteem. It was a great experience of community for me to be with them. 
                This experience reminded me that we accomplish more with community. I set out to write a biography of a great individual and found instead that she is a part of several communities. She works with the diocese, the community of people, and our Felician community. When she does initiate, she includes people, reaching out to them and empowering them to make a difference. As I wrote about her accomplishments, I was struck by how connected she is and how important relationships are to her.
At the end of the process, I had a 15-page biography with a cover sheet, photographs, and list of sources. I also was inspired by the example of Sister Celeste. I hope one day to take part in the ministry in Tulita short term, and to see in person what I wrote about.

Biography of Sister Celeste

Hello, all! Recently, I was asked to write a biography of one of our sisters, who is a missionary in the Northwest Territories of Canada. I want to share excerpts of it with you. Her life of loving service is truly inspiring.


Name: Sister Mary Celeste (Josephine) Goulet, CSSF
Congregation: Sisters of Saint Felix of Cantalice
Mission To: First Nation People of Tulita, Northwest Territories of Canada
Years in Mission: 1979-Present


Sister Celeste has become a member of the North Slavey community, where she is considered an elder. She has great respect for them. Their reverence for the created world resonates with her Franciscan spirituality. In a meditation that she submitted to a Felician reflection book, she wrote, “God our Creator gave us the earth to care for and to care for us.” She began her ministry by spending time with them on the land, sharing their spiritual love for their ancestral grounds. She is often invited to go out on the land with families or groups.  She also joins them for cultural feasts and celebrations. Her commitment to her adopted community was best seen in 1995, when extreme heat and dry conditions caused a forest fire that approached Tulita. Everyone packed a bag and was flown to Norman Wells. With the help of the local people, Sister Celeste transformed the community hall there into a preschool. The fire continued to rage, and was moving toward Norman Wells, so the Dene were moved to Deline. Miraculously, the blaze did not destroy any houses or schools. That year, Sister Celeste did not take her usual summer vacation to the Felician convent in Mississauga, Ontario, opting instead to stay and support the people, whose sacred land, Great Bear Rock, had burned.  Annually, on June 6, they celebrate “Fire Day” in commemoration of how God saved their town.


 The Dene people return her respect and admiration. In 1995, when the preschool’s name was being changed from Fort Norman Child Development Centre, the majority of the people voted to rename it the Sister Celeste Child Development Centre. They’ve also renamed a street in her honor, Celeste Street.



Sister Celeste is present to the people, day and night. Whenever a plea for help comes, she is there for them, available at any time. “She showed me what it really meant to be a pastoral minister in the North,” Fr. Justin Glyn, SJ, wrote in his blog for the Jesuits of the English Canada Province, after his visit in 2016. Sister Celeste describes herself as a pastoral worker. She is a deeply religious person who lives her faith through her love, service, and a strong commitment to the well-being of adults and children. She loves and accepts the people there, and has dedicated her life to the preschool and to the people of Tulita. Her gentle and cheerful nature, as well as her sense of humor, recommends her to the people. She never judges but speaks honestly, encouraging and bringing hope whenever she can. One of her goals is to rebuild a native sense of community, bringing God to people, while respecting their ancestral heritage and commitment to the earth.

         One priest serves the entire Sahtu region, and only comes to Tulita three or four times a year. Sister Celeste is fully involved in Church life as a Pastoral Worker. She both prepares the people for and administers the sacraments, presiding over baptisms, first communions, weddings, and funerals. Every day people come to pray the rosary. She leads the communion service on Sunday, which consists of songs, the rosary, readings of the day, her homily, and reception of Holy Communion. Afterward, she brings Communion to the homebound. She also leads prayer at the beginning of events that the people have. She has a Holy Hour once a week with Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The intention at the Holy Hour is for youth, that they may have guidance and follow a good path.
Over the last 39 years, she has initiated several programs that meet the needs of the community. She started an Alcoholics Anonymous group and provides support for victims of drug and alcohol abuse. The AA group meets once a week in the evening at the preschool. Through the years, she has increased her emphasis on counseling for all genders and ages, and helping people overcome addictions. When people return from the rehabilitation center in Edmonton, she provides the support that they need. She also opened youth and elders drop-in centers for the supervision and care of at-risk populations of the community. The youth drop-in center began in 1983 in the basement of the St. Theresa’s Church basement and was in operation into the 1990’s. She is a refuge for women and children whose domestic lives are unstable, and she provides a temporary home for young girls in the community for whom it is dangerous to live with their families. Foster care is rarely available in Tulita, and without her intervention, such children would have to leave the community to be taken care of. She also helps women write resumes and fill out job applications and legal forms.

          She's also the longtime director of the Sister Celeste Child Development Centre. The Centre offers school readiness programs geared toward academic success and improved social skills. Materials are placed within the children’s reach and they are encouraged to explore and try them. It focuses on six main areas of development: cognitive, social, physical, spiritual, emotional, and cultural. The young students benefit from a setting with structures and routines, where boundaries and expectations are clearly established. This is good preparation for the school environment. They also learn independence, manners, and self-esteem. It teaches them how to cooperate with each other and to solve problems by talking it out, which she hopes will deter future drinking.  Families are included in the activities at the school; some events that occur are specifically for families. She offers literacy classes to parents who want to become better readers. Now, when she visits the homes of her student’s families, she often sees coloring books, papers, writing tools, and books for the children to read. Parents will consult with her about what educational toys to buy their children. Her influence has extended beyond Tulita, too. Other early childhood education schools will often ask to come and observe hers to see how theirs should be run. She not only allows this, but reaches out to them by meeting with them and giving them advice. The preschool has become a model for others in the north, and early childhood education has become accepted throughout the territory.
There is a second mission of promoting respect for Dene culture and tradition. Students learn the North Slavey language from local teachers, and about their traditions from their elders, who also come in to teach the children. She encourages the staff to speak to the children in Slavey, and to conduct circle time in that language, too. The elders participate in field trips that focus on the traditions of the Dene; snow-shoeing, playing hand games, looking for animal tracks, and drum dancing are some of them.  Another example of the role that culture plays in the curriculum is the lesson about how to snare and cook a rabbit, which is then shared with the elders at a communal feast.

Sister Celeste is also committed to helping the Dene remember and value their own stories. She does this through the preschool curriculum. She also does this through the books that she has written. She has already written and/or illustrated fifteen books of Dene cultural stories, which are written in both English and North Slavey. They are legends and recordings of the Elder’s memories of former days. The books are used in the Child Development Centre and schools in the Sahtu region, ranging from preschools to high schools. They have also been translated into the South Slavey language, so that children from that region can benefit from them. The children listen to the story, read in the Slavey language, while they look at the book. There are nine more books, about the Dene creation story, the Legend of Great Bear Rock, which are ready to be published. These books are a community project, as she works with elders and local translators, as well as young illustrators.
She has been the recipient of multiple awards for her work in the early childhood education and in the mission. In 1991, she received her first award for her work in child care. In 1999, she was one of four women from the four regions of the Northwest Territories to receive the Northwest Territories Wise Woman Award. This was given by the Status of Women Council. This is given to those who work at the grassroots level to help better the lives of women, their families, and their communities. In 2008, she won the Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Early Childhood Education. She was selected as the top Early Childhood Educator from across the region of the Northwest Territories and Nunavit. She was one of ten from the Early Childhood Education field from across Canada. Each winner attended a Best Practices workshop, where she shared her work and experiences.  In 2016, she received the St. Joseph Award for Outstanding Missionary Work. This is given to a religious or lay missionary who has demonstrated dedication to the missions and has greatly influenced people. When she received it, she called it “an honor for the whole Felician Community.