Novices Reflect on their Federation Experience

By Sarah Jenkins

When the five women who are novices in three different Sisters of St. Joseph congregations head home this week, they will each take a different path and take up a different ministry. The novices from the Congregation of St. Joseph in Canada — Sisters Christine Carbotte, Donna Smith and Mary Anne Larocque — will all return to the London, Ontario, area, with Christine going to help at a center for marginalizied women, Donna going to a Catholic primary school and Mary Anne being open “to whatever is needed.” The novice from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Watertown, N.Y., Sister Patricia Urbinelli, will become the regional youth ministry coordinator based in Ogdensburg, N.Y. The Concordia novice, Sister Christina Brodie, will remain here as she prepares to profess her vows as a canonical Sister of St. Joseph on June 11. Yet each of the five says she has been changed by the past nine months, living and learning together in the Sisters of St. Joseph Federation Novitiate based at Manna House in Concordia.The first challenge for these five, in their final stage before professing vows as women religious, was learning to live “in community.” “Whether as novices or professed sisters, it’s a different type of living,” said Sister Christina. “It can be a challenge.” But the fact that all five women described themselves as “second career” — with ages ranging from 44 to 68 when they began this novitiate last August — gave them a common ground they might not have had otherwise, she added.StPiusXChurch ElPasoGroup 040216 1

“There was a lot more synchronicity than there would have been if there had been younger women among us, so we could relate much better to one another.”
Agreed, said Sister Christine Carbotti: “The commonality was of us coming in as older women, instead of coming in as teenagers, so we‘ve looked after our own homes, had our own careers, looked after ourselves.” That doesn’t mean there were no differences, Sister Donna added with a laugh. Although she and Sister Patty had lived together for a year in Cobourg, Ontario before coming to Concordia, “Here it was a different dynamic, and a different culture — one from Florida, two New Yorkers, then the three of us from Canada… We really had to work on how we interconnected together.”

One of the novices who began the program last August — from the Sisters of St. Joseph of St. Augustine, Fla. — left the novitiate in November and returned to her own community to complete her studies.The five remaining novices give much of the credit for becoming “interconnected” to Sister Ann Ashwood, who professed her vow as an agrégée Sister of St. Joseph of Concordia in 2010 and who was asked by the congregation to move from her home in Grand Junction, Colorado, last year to serve as program director of the Federation Novitiate. She serves with Sister Betty Suther, who is novice director for the program, and Sister Mary Jo Thummel, assistant novice director.

This was the first time the Concordia congregation hosted the joint novitiate for the two dozen or so St. Joseph congregations that make up the U.S. Federation. Sister Ann concedes with a laugh that she was “scared to death” when the program began. But, she adds quickly, “I had to trust my sisters here that they knew what they were doing when they asked me. As we’ve talked often about growing into the experience of being a Sister of St, Joseph, I have grown into this role.” “Without Ann, I’m not sure I would have made it through,” Sister Christina said. “She brought so much to it, with her life experience and understanding of the dynamics of each person.”Sister Ann believes that is another benefit of being a little older.“As I have gone through this year, it has been really amazing how prepared my life experience brought me to this,” explains the retired Catholic school principal. “It’s as if this is what my life had prepared me to do. My life experience as a woman who comes to religious life late, a second career kind of thing, who has been in the real world, that all allowed us to share many of the same life experiences.”13071744 1601381220181284 4108381636422261735 o Copy

All that shared life experience did not mean there was no adjustment required for the women in the novitiate program based at Manna House of Prayer, in rural Concordia, population 5,000, on the open and rolling low hills of north-central Kansas. The three Canadian sisters, none of whom had ever lived in the United States, said there was a cultural adjustment. For Sister Donna and Christine, one early eye-opening sight came at Concordia’s Fall Fest in September, a one-day street fair packed with food, music and vendors of all types. “I was walking down the street and there was a booth there with very large guns, as part of a raffle, and I was like, ‘Whoa! You certainly don’t see that back home,’ “ remembered Sister Donna. “It wasn’t something I was used to; it was so open and so free.” “I noticed the same thing, along with the ‘No Guns’ signs on the Motherhouse and at the hospital,” Sister Christine added. “That really struck me.”While guns are allowed in Canada, the rates of gun ownership are significantly lower than in the United States, and the Canadian gun-related homicide rate is about one-seventh of that in the United States, according to a December 2015 report from Statistics Canada. Yet both Donna and Christine appreciated the small-town ambience of events like Fall Fest. Both novices grew up in small towns and enjoyed the hospitality and kindness of Concordians. The third Canadian, Sister Mary Ann Larocque, walked a subtle diplomatic line when asked about adjusting to Concordia. “I’ve appreciated the friendliness of Concordians,” she said. “You have all been very welcoming, very kind and genuine, authentic.” But, the London, Ontario, resident added, “Had it not been for the intense curriculum (of the novitiate program), I would have really missed the cultural possibilities in a larger city – theater, restaurants, the university. “It’s the perfect place for the novitiate, which is focused on the extent and intensity of the study that we’ve done,” she concluded with quiet wit. “Concordia has lent itself well to that pursuit. No distractions.” And no mountains, noted 

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Sister Patty, from the “North Country” of upper New York state, at the east end of Lake Ontario.“Culturally, it hasn’t been a huge difference; the North Country is very rural,” she explained. “But for me, it’s been geography; I miss mountains and lakes. It was an adjustment getting used to such open spaces.” She and the Canadian sisters are eager to return to familiar landscapes. While Sister Christina remains at Manna House in preparation for her vows in just a few weeks, Sister Patty will return to Watertown where she expects to profess her vows later this summer.

Sisters Donna and Christine will go home for their already-assigned tasks through October, and then will schedule their own professions — possibly this fall. They are the first two novices received since four smaller Ontario communities merged four years ago to become the Congregation of St. Joseph of Canada, so the profession process is still being worked out.
Sister Mary Ann will also be home in London, and will “have a conversation” with her community about where her path takes her next.No matter what their paths, Sister Christina believes they all leave the Federation Novitiate with a shared experience. “I expected it to be a year of stretching and hard work and trying to balance a significantly deep curriculum with prayer and reflection,” she explained. “And it’s been that, for all of us. When we leave here, we will be up and running.”