Hump Day: Documentary provides new insights on the lives of nuns

Hump DayHump Day
By Brian Cormier
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Moncton Times & Transcript
Editorial section

Now that I have a PVR at home – one of those fancy-shmancy doodads (sorry for the scientific terminology) that allows you to record television shows on a hard drive – I have a tendency to skip commercials.

Sometimes, though, I’m glad I catch one. Case in point, I was watching Radio-Canada Acadie’s newscast the other day when a promotional ad came on for a National Film Board documentary that would be aired. Entitled Pour la cause (For the Cause), the documentary looked at the history of the Notre Dame du Sacré Coeur religious order of nuns based on King Street in Moncton.

While the congregation’s main convent is on King Street, the sisters are spread throughout the Maritimes in a number of communities. And if you didn’t already know, the convent on King Street used to be The Moncton Hospital before the current facility on Mac-Beath Avenue opened.

My own interactions with nuns first came about in the 1970s as a student at École Aberdeen and École Vanier. They were all quite the characters. There was Soeur (Sister) Françoise Caissie at Aberdeen who I used to ask to tie the hood of my winter coat before I knew how. Later, she taught me English at Vanier and would often barge into our class to admonish students for chewing gum. ‘What is this? A chewing party?’ I always liked her. I even got her to write me a letter of recommendation when I applied to the University of King’s College School of Journalism in the early 1980s. She must have done a good job, because I got in. I remember picking up the letter at their now-demolished Lutz Street residence that used to be behind the cathedral.

There was Soeur Carmella Gosselin who taught me math in Grade 7. Another character! She was quite funny and had a way of teaching that seemed to stick. I can’t remember what she was trying to teach us, but I remember her telling us to leave a ‘driveway’ (she’d even say it in English) between some long-forgotten mathematical formulae to make them easier to calculate. I remember in Grade 1 asking a nun who taught Grade 2 at Aberdeen why she became a nun. As she spent time outside with us students during one recess, I asked her why she became a nun.

A heavy question from a six-year-old! I remember her answer, though. She told me that she loved Jesus and wanted to (for all intents and purposes) marry him. It was kind of like that. It seemed to satisfy my young curious mind.

My penchant for personal questions got me put in my place, though, when I asked my Grade 1 teacher how old she was. She told me it was rude to ask a woman her age . . . but told me she was 26, positively ancient from my perspective at the time. There’s stuff older than 26 in my fridge right now, I think.

And I’m only half kidding.

When I was young, I found out that I had a great aunt who was a nun – Soeur Marie Cormier. She was a sweet, tiny woman, who was always happy and in a good mood. She was my paternal grandfather’s sister – which I never really understood because grandfathers just didn’t have sisters, at least in my mind.

As the years went by and I grew into an adult, I reconnected with Soeur Marie through family events and started visiting her a few times per year with my cousins. She was such a lovely person. She died in 2008 at 97, so well cared for by the staff and other sisters that she sometimes wondered if Jesus had forgotten her. I’m sure he didn’t forget her. He just wanted to make sure we got to enjoy her company for as long as possible.

I always had a bit of a prejudiced view of nuns – of demure and quiet women who stood back and did what they were told by a mother superior or by priests. Soeur Caissie and Soeur Gosselin certainly weren’t the demure types, nor is Soeur Lorette Gallant, the former director of the Jeunes Chanteurs d’Acadie, the subject of another documentary I saw recently. I thought I’d seen everything until I saw Soeur Lorette cheering on the Moncton Wildcats from her seat in the Moncton Coliseum in the documentary. A nun who loves hockey.

Who knew?

The Pour la cause documentary was fascinating to watch. (You can watch it online through the National Film Board’s website. It’s in French only.) A number of nuns were interviewed and they were anything but demure, shy and quiet little wallflowers too afraid to speak their minds.

In fact, one sister was shown in archival video footage talking to Pope John Paul II at the cathedral during his visit to Moncton in 1984.

She was calling for an expanded role for women in the church, something that John Paul didn’t seem quite open to at the time – if ever. In the footage, he doesn’t act terribly interested in hearing much of what she has to say and seems to do everything but roll his eyes.

The documentary gave me a whole new view of who nuns are.

They are strong women. They’re dedicated, passionate, educated and determined. The ones I saw interviewed would love to see women take on an expanded role in the Roman Catholic Church, something with which I feel many churchgoers would agree. And, shockingly, they seemed much more liberal in their social views than I could have ever imagined, preferring to love rather that judge. How deeply refreshing!

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