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Convent closure seen as ‘end of an era’

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When St. Jude’s Convent closed its doors as a functioning residence for the “Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions” Saturday afternoon, a chapter in Fort Frances’ history closed as well.

The landmark residence at 335 Nelson St. had been a convent for the religious order since 1919, with 90 consecrated women having passed through it over the span of 80 years. The home was recently sold to a local family.

Sr. Hilda Lang, 66, who is still an active community volunteer, is the last of her religious order to live in the home after four other Sisters moved away last May to live in seniors’ homes. Sr. Hilda moves out of the house and into an apartment here at the end of next month.

Over 50 people attended the one-hour closing ceremony on Saturday, including local parishioners from St. Mary’s Church and a handful of Sisters from other centres.

As much as it was a chance for friends to say good-bye, the song-filled, sometimes emotional service also was a place to share memories.

“It has been my privilege to guard this heritage home and I found, it guarded me with so much warmth and peace,” noted Sr. Hilda, shortly before reading a poem she had composed about the convent.

Among those on hand were Bill Kirk and Ed Domanski -- who at 87 and 80 respectively, have had their lives impacted by St. Jude’s Convent since they were children.

In the late 20’s and early 30’s they attended St. Mary’s School, once located across the street from the convent where Sister Kennedy Centre now stands. Sisters did their teaching missions there.

“I used to know quite a few of the Sisters when I was [young],” said Kirk, who found the closing ceremonies very meaningful. “In fact, I helped them plant a crab apple tree outside [the convent] in 1928 and it’s still there,” he noted. The tree stands on the west side of the convent and now towers over the building.

“I went [to the closure] because it was the passing of an era,” echoed Domanski earlier this week. “The Sisters were a good part of our lives -- a pretty good bunch of girls,” he smiled.

“They were very dedicated to their profession in everything they did,” Domanski stressed, noting he had been among the youngsters to work the convent’s garden.

Sr. Delores Turgeon, 59, of the “Sisters of St. Joseph” in Thunder Bay, had a couple of reasons for traveling here for the closing of St. Jude’s.

Born and raised in Fort Frances, she also had her childhood rooted in the teachings of the Sisters.

“I had them as teachers pretty much right through school and I also took piano lessons at the convent,” she reflected. “I thought the closure was so fitting and actually, I was glad to be able to see the house,” she enthused.

As a child attending lessons at the convent, she was not allowed to venture randomly through the house, especially since that was the “semi-cloistered” era of the religious order.

“As an eight or nine year old I can remember ringing the convent’s raspy doorbell and a small grill would open and a voice would say ‘yes’”, Sr. Delores reflected. “To a child that was very mysterious.

“Much of the house was closed to the public [and] we were not allowed to go through it as gaily as we did on Saturday without any impedance,” she chuckled.

Sr. Hilda noted that the end of St. Jude’s Convent here brings the number of convent closures across the country which belong to the “Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions” to 10 in the last decade. Teaching missions are virtually a thing of the past and almost three-quarters of the religious order are in their 80’s and 90’s.

Nowadays, said Sr. Hilda, remaining members of the religious order who are able, often choose to live out individual missions in community centres of their choice.

Meanwhile, after the closing ceremony at St. Jude’s Convent, many of those on hand attended Rainycrest for a special 90th birthday party and celebration of 70 years of religious life for resident Sr. Betty Kennedy, who once lived at the convent. She was is well-known here for her dedication to missions involving youth and community projects.

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