Joanne O’Regan met her first ‘Martha’ in the late 1990s.
“I remember thinking, ‘I like the way they are in the world,’” she said Wednesday of her first impression of the Antigonish-based Sisters of St. Martha.
Though raised a Roman Catholic in Toronto, O’Regan hadn’t been spending a lot of her time in church.
She’d been busy with work as an event planner and social justice campaigner.
“In your mid 30s finding that deeper sense of meaning takes on more of an urgency as you see time going on,” said O’Regan.
In 2001 she became one of the sisters of St. Martha.
The order hasn’t had a new recruit since.
The 58 Sisters of St. Martha living at Bethany Motherhouse, the order’s Antigonish home, have moved across the road to Parkland Antigonish. The three-storey facility owned by Shannex and partially leased by the order includes 25 long-term care beds, 19 assisted living units and 42 independent suites.
“We know things are different,” said sister Brendalee Boisvert.
“We are also on the threshold of a new future. This frees us from the responsibility of owning and operating our own facility.”
Boisvert was speaking Tuesday at the unveiling of a gift to the Sisters of St. Martha from the community they have long served. The large five-piece mural by Antigonish County artist Anna Syperek tells the story of the Marthas with a wandering path through an allegorical landscape that takes in the great big world the sisters have travelled over their 118 years and places it all around St. George’s Bay.
“We are all on a journey, but theirs is a communal one,” said Syperek.
The first Marthas were brought to Antigonish in 1897 to do housekeeping at the then struggling St. Francis College. The order was paid $2 a month for its services.
Nine years later the sisters raised $500 by going door to door around the town and used the funds to open a six-bed cottage hospital.
By the ’50s the order had over 400 members and owned or operated 11 hospitals across North America, including St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish, which they didn’t turn over to the province until 1996.
On Wednesday, sister Joanne O’Regan watched stoves and computers and chairs and filing cabinets carried out of the Bethany Motherhouse.
“I don’t spend a lot of energy thinking about whether someone is going to come after me,” said O’Regan.
“Because that would assume I have some control over that and I don’t.”
Age places powerful demands on both body and spirit.
As their numbers decline, the focus of the remaining sisters is twofold — caring for each other and finding new ways to work in their community.
The order hasn’t turned inward.
It still has members working in Inverness, Eskasoni, Sydney, Halifax and Alberta as social workers, in spirituality programs and in street ministry.
The freshly plowed fields behind Bethany House will soon be sowed by participants in the order’s New Growers Program — that sees market gardeners given access to the land and offered instruction in farming and marketing techniques.
“We don’t have to be big to have an impact,” said O’Regan.
“Our future is hope-filled.”