Sister Anna Moran has 100 years of story to tell


The first impression of the Sisters of Providence Motherhouse property in midtown Kingston is trees. One tall old tree has special meaning for Sister Anna Moran. It’s the only tree older than her on the property known as Heathfield, one she has read beneath many times. When someone turns 100, as Sister Anna does on June 19, you look for points of reference … and in this case, it’s the many trees younger than she, some of which she planted herself.

Sister Anna is not the oldest Sister of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul. She has not yet broken the record as the longest-serving Sister, though she is close. But because she entered at the tender age of 17, she has been a Sister longer than anyone else alive. That is an interesting vantage point to look back, as she marks a century.

Anna grew up in Maynooth in Ontario’s Hastings Highlands, south-east of Algonquin Park. She was one of nine and her family was “poor, poor,” she says. Her mom was a teacher, though, and her family believed in education, so a system was worked out. An aunt in Toronto took one child at a time so they could finish high school. In Anna’s case, her sister was already away at school when she came of age, so she got a job to fill in the time until it was her turn. She travelled to Trenton where another aunt had set up a housekeeping job for her. She was paid $16/month, money she used to get her teeth repaired.

She got an afternoon and an evening off a month. In that spare time, she looked for friends her own age and found them at the Trenton Convent of the Sisters of Providence, where girls gathered. (The now-Sister Aileen Donnelly was among them, but she is a year younger and entered the congregation a year later, so we’ll tell her story next year.) Anna Moran had planned to be a mother of many and never considered religious life for herself. However, one of the girls, who had planned to enter in 1932, drowned. A member of their circle of friends delivered the news to Anna saying: “You have to take her place.”

“Well, that put the idea in my mind,” says Sister Anna. To decide, she “put a proposition to God.” It all weighed on the business-like Sister Carmel Teresa who was the music and choir director in Trenton. Anna was in the choir. Sister never dallied after benediction. Anna wagered with herself: If Sister stayed, this one day, Anna would ask her about her Congregation. As you have guessed, this one day, not only did Sister Carmel Teresa stay, she responded to Anna’s tentative query with an “I knew it!” and took Anna to the local Mother Superior at the convent that very afternoon. The seed was well and truly planted.

Sister Mary Justina (Anna Moran’s religious name) in 1963

A year later, at the age of 17, Anna formally entered the Sisters of Providence on August 15, 1933 at Heathfield in Kingston. It was a large property on the outskirts of town, known as a home of Sir John A MacDonald and his sister. The old villa was intact and the new Motherhouse had been erected. Anna recalls that “it was all country then, the road was all country.” After the reception and profession ceremony, lunch was held on the grass outside. Anna wasn’t alone. More than two dozen young women travelled to Kingston from across the country to enter the religious congregation that fall. There were nine young ones like her, 17 years of age or under, though all the others had their Grade 10. Anna was the only one who hadn’t been taught by Sisters, the only country girl in the lot, she says. So it was a particular honour to be chosen, two years later, to continue her education at Maryvale Abbey, the boarding school run by the Sisters of Providence in Glen Nevis.

Two of them went. Sister Mary Alma Murphy was to be a nurse and Anna, now called Sister Mary Justina, a teacher. She got her Grade 11, 12 and 13 at Glen Nevis, and then her teacher’s college in Ottawa. She was sent to her first ministry, to be a teacher at the small school in Apple Hill, Ontario, near Cornwall. She was there for two years. At that time, the Congregation’s future for her was revealed. Not only was Anna to remain a teacher, for which she was showing aptitude, she was going beyond the primary education course she had requested. “That is not our plan for you,” she was told by Mother Victoria, the head of the Congregation and herself a teacher. Sister Anna was enrolled as a part-time student at Queen’s University instead. It would take her 11 years to get her degree inbetween teaching, church work and looking after altar servers and classes, but she graduated in 1951.

Was it simply chance that Anna entered the Sisters of Providence, taking the place of a drowned friend? Sister Anna doesn’t think so. She believes that she herself heard, and indeed, felt, that this was the path for her: “God didn’t call me,” she says. “He pushed me!” Her family was inclined towards religious life, but “my people had never heard tell of the Sisters of Providence.” But the little that Anna had gotten to know of the congregation that year in Trenton had all been to the good.

The Sisters of Providence did not block access to families for their members, or at least not to the extent of some religious communities. It’s something that drew Sister Anna to the congregation – once you entered, you were able to visit on occasion, on top of being able to write. “It’s why I came here,” she says. “Any other community you never went home. All you had were letters and pictures. You never knew them anymore.” Also, the Sisters of Providence in Trenton lived as part of the community. They walked down the street to buy groceries and went home in the summer, Sister Anna saw, and that was attractive. Finally, she didn’t want to leave Canada. The Sisters of Providence had no international missions when she entered and that was another selling point.

So she joined. And she stayed. “I never questioned it once in all my 80-something years,” she says. “It never entered my head to leave,” she says now.

An interesting aside is that Anna’s sister who went to Toronto ahead of her ended up in religious life too, with the Sisters of Good Shepherd. As Anna travelled home, especially in the summer of 1945, the year her mother died, “you had to take a companion with you.” Anna’s cousins acted as companions, one ahead of her in the Sisters of Providence, one who joined soon after. Eventually two of Anna’s family-sisters joined the Sisters of Providence as well, though over time both left the congregation, one after only a few months.

On her knees to pray, on her knees to work

The days began at 5 and consisted of prayer, study, silence, classes and work. For work, she recalls being taught to patch and then sew from Sister Mary Hilary and that was “something good,” as it suited her. There were breaks for half an hour after lunch, an hour after supper but you never sat idle. Sister Anna’s group sat and sewed their chemises and chatted. Then it was time for silence.

In the summer, when school was out, she would return to the Motherhouse to do housekeeping and work with the sick Sisters. She would get down on her knees to scrub the terrazzo floor, but polishing was a job for two. The machine used was too heavy for her. So her friend, Sister Adele, sat on a blanket and Sister Anna would pull her up and down the hall to make the floors shine. “We made a racket,” she says with a twinkle.

Life was simple and the Sisters were a world unto themselves. It wasn’t proper for the Sisters to drive until the 1950s, so there was one male driver in their employ, who would bring teachers to their schools. There were two developmentally-challenged staff – a man who worked in the kitchen with Sisters and a young woman to run errands. Sisters did the rest. The car was called The Black Mariah and was a big van with a bench along each side wall. The driver – “the man” – lived at a house at the gate.

The Sisters were urged to go about the property in pairs or groups. Kingston was a prison town even then. Because Heathfield was beyond the city limits at the time, and the penitentiary owned some of the surrounding land, inmates on the run were known to hide in the bushes now and then. One order of sisters in Kingston even reported that a habit had been taken off the clothesline so that an escapee had a new look.

Sometimes in the evenings, priests would come to Heathfield to offer what were called conferences – religion and spirituality classes for Sisters. The Sisters had a lot of prayer in their lives. The conferences added to their knowledge of their faith. “The priests came from all over. That’s where I got my religious education,” she says now.

An illustrious career

Altogether, Sister Anna taught for 34 years at nine schools. In addition to Apple Hill, she taught in Gananoque, Smiths Falls, Kingston, Belleville and Brantford, Ontario. She was the vice principal of a Grade 1-12 school in Camrose, Alberta and principal at an elementary school in Trenton, Ontario. And those were just her “day jobs,” as it were. She was usually associated with a parish and often had formal roles as sacristan or organizing the altar boys.

Sister Anna Moran’s classroom at St. Patrick’s High School in Camrose, Alberta

Remember her Queen’s education, all finished by now? She added an education degree from the University of Alberta – and was urged to continue in academia. She later supplemented her knowledge with classes and summer courses from the education faculties at the Universities of Ottawa and Toronto, but left it at that. She reports anti-Queen’s sentiment in Alberta that paralleled the anti-Catholic sentiment she experienced at Queen’s.

In 1973, Sister Anna was asked to take on a new ministry . For five years, she worked for the Movement for a Better World, an organization founded in Rome and focussed on parish renewal. It offered a series of courses on contemporary religious topics to help lay Catholics – and especially women – feel knowledgeable and confident about being involved in their parishes. Even though she was part of a team, she writes that she was very lonely, living out of a suitcase training parishes all over her large region. She was glad to move to parish work after that – for nine years in Camrose, Alberta at St. Francis Xavier parish; and then at St. Pius X parish in Brantford, Ontario. Inbetween she went on sabbatical at the University of California in Berkeley and toured Greece, Israel and Rome.

In 1994, Sister Anna returned to the Motherhouse as the coordinator of the Marian I floor and remained as such for six years. Then she retired. She was 84. She had lately discovered a passion for poetry that carried her into three self-published volumes. She has written tributes to people, poems about liturgical seasons and the Holy Family, interspersed with poems that struggle with the human condition. Some comment on stages of her life. In Reflections, published in 2008, she writes as an octogenerian allowed to enter “low gear:”

For I had reached the age when body and mind
Had come to the stage when one needed to be kind
To one’s self, and to take inventory
Of all one needs to do to enter God’s glory.

Then and now

It was a challenge to go from a family life with an adored mother and dad and lots of siblings and become one of many potential Sisters to be trained and toughened. Postulants and novices were schooled in all the ways a Sister of Providence was to conduct herself and feelings were not often spared in the process. . “I was told I had lots of faults!” Sister Anna puts forward. It was hard and she was lonely often, but especially at the beginning: “I had small brothers and sisters at home. I missed my mother,” she says, but then adds, “It was harder on her than me. They kept me busy.” She was allowed to write once a month and took every opportunity. Her first Christmas was especially sad. But she woke up to the professed Sisters singing Christmas carols, like angels. “It was so positive it steadied me,” she recalls. Then she laughs – “Christmas was the one day in the year we never got chastised.”

The running of the Congregation was different back then. Mother General was seen only once in a while, sometimes at meals, but the regular postulants, novices and even Sisters didn’t speak with her much. Today, of course, the Sisters call each other by their first names and the General Superior mixes with everyone regularly. Though represented, like many other Sisters, Sister Anna was not herself part of the Congregation’s Chapter meetings that decided on the direction of the congregation until later in life. Anna perceived her role to be: Go where you are sent, do what you are told, ask no questions.

Sister Anna Moran in 1967, or shortly thereafter

Was it really that strict? Maybe it was because she had grown up poor, or entered so young, or felt “country,” sometimes, but that’s certainly how it felt to Sister Anna, and that was okay with her. “I just went with the flow,” as she understood it. In the story of her life, written in 1993, Sister Anna acknowledges that there was a rigidity that went with her “go with the flow,” attitude. She writes about her love for every child in her classroom, but adds: “My only regret is that I did not show them so, that I did not shake off the harness of discipline and love them all into the fullness of life.” She asks: “Can prayer for them every morning and night ever repair such negligence?” It’s strange to read those words written by a woman who greets people with open arms every day.

She has made up for some gaps, certainly. When she was “out in the field,” teaching, she wasn’t aware of the changes going on around her. For instance, after the Vatican II meetings in the 1960s that updated many rules of the Catholic Church, “I was shocked at how free everyone was here,” she says about returning to Kingston for a visit. But she joined in – changing back to her given name and moving to regular clothes. She fully embraced the beauty of coordinating outfits and dressing well – on a dime, of course. Sister Anna has a terrific sense of style and is always impeccably dressed. The nurses on the infirmary floor where she lives give her jewellery to match her outfits. Her ears always sparkle with earrings. But best of all are the days she wears her “dangles.” Her pleasure brings pleasure to many others. She prays for many people and keeps all her prayer request in a jar that has become stuffed full over the years. When she forgets a specific request, she prays for all the requests in the jar, figuring she has it covered that way.

Sister Anna recognizes that turning 100 is something to celebrate and expresses a lot of gratitude to her family, the staff who work with the Sisters, and the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul congregation and members, of course. She regularly remarks on how good the Sisters are, how proud she is of them. “I like what’s happening now and I like the plans for the future,” she says, light catching on the metal on her ears. “I have believed in God’s Providence since early childhood,” she writes in a poem about turning 100. “And now, in old age, know that God’s Providence is looking after us, and will continue to do so in aeternum.”

Sister Anna shares her birthday with the one Sister of Providence who is older than she, Sister Anne Louise Haughian, who will be 102 on Sunday.

Sister Anna Moran at the 150th anniversary celebrations of the Sisters of Providence in 2011

On Heathfield

So what was the Motherhouse property like, back in the day? Sister Anna Moran describes quite a different picture from the well-kept lawns, trees and gardens of today, summing it up as a limestone bog:

There was a slough, or swamp, in the back, wet enough that nothing would grow. The land was deliberately and slowly cultivated. The limestone was covered by earth. One of the first flowers to bloom was a profusion of poppies, glorious to the Sisters. Deeper behind the house was wild, she says. A stream, or “crick,” ran in the line between today’s gazebo and barn. “We never went beyond that,” she says.

Oh how the Sisters worked to reclaim the land. Early on, each woman was given a six-foot square of land to grow vegetables. “I worked hard but grew nothing, not even a carrot,” says Sister Anna. “I gave up on that!” But other work bore more fruit. Some of the younger trees were planted by Sister Anna, when she helped Sister Mary Roberta with seedlings along the long fence on Princess Street. The Sisters were determined to make the grounds private and productive.

This photo was taken at Heathfield before 1954 and shows Sister Anna  on the right in full habit. She was known as Sister Mary Justina at the time.