Convent's closure marks end of an era

A nearly 100-year-old convent is set to close in Pembroke, Ont., at the end of this month.

The Sisters of St. Joseph has been operating on the shore of the Ottawa River since 1921, when the congregation began farming a 5.4-hectare plot of sloping land on what was then Pembroke's outskirts.

The acreage was once home to 80 nuns who trained, operated a Catholic mission and worked as teachers.

Now, with the property expected to be sold by the end of this month, the eight remaining sisters, all in their mid-80s, say it truly is the end of an era.

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In 1953, the Sisters of St. Joseph opened a new convent on the original site.

The congregation peaked in the 1970s when about 80 nuns dined, prayed, slept and operated a well-equipped infirmary there.

Though Sister Lucy Germain wasn't raised in a particularly religious family, she surprised them all when she knocked on the convent doors one September morning. Sister Lucy was welcomed into the fold and began training, but only lasted until the following February.

"The honeymoon was over," she laughed, looking back. "I guess it was lonesomeness."

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Germain spent two years at teachers college where, she confesses, she danced, went to parties and dated boys, including one who was very disappointed when she dropped him and everything else to return to the convent.

"It's such a mystery, but it really is a call, and I believe if it's your place, that's what God wants. And, after that, I never hesitated," she said. "Whether we lived here permanently or were living elsewhere, this was our home."

The 55,000-square-foot red brick building includes a pool, a cafeteria, dozens of apartments and of course a chapel.

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Colliers Real Estate is pitching the $2.2-million listing as an ideal site for a private school, a nursing home or a development opportunity.

The sisters say they expect a deal to be reached with one of several prospective buyers by the end of the month.

In the open sitting room where the nuns spent their evenings watching the Ottawa Senators and Netflix on a modern flat-screen TV, Sister Betty Berrigan, 85, discovered one of the convent's many upright pianos is sliding out of tune.

"Oh, I don't think you'd better put that on television!" she laughed.

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Sister Betty entered the convent at 18.

"I had a wonderful boyfriend at one time and he didn't like the idea, but anyway I had to stay the course," she shrugged. "It's been a very happy life for me. I've been in the right place and I know it."

The sale of the convent will allow the eight remaining sisters, who have ostensibly spent most of their lives living below the poverty line, to move to a comfortable retirement residence across town.

They have already begun labelling furniture with pieces of tape so that what little property they own can follow them to their new home in mid-February.

"But we maintain, too, that this life will go on," said Sister Loretta Rice, who entered the convent at age 23 and will turn 85 in June. "Not here in Pembroke, but in other places and in other countries."

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