School Sisters of Notre Dame reflect on their lives of sisterhood

Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

At one time there were more than two hundred nuns across our region, running schools, hospitals and convents, and filling other essential roles in our church communities. Now, speaking from their quaint hilltop home in Peace River, Sr. Mary Jeanne Davidson and Sr. Connie Harkin are two of the only sisters still working in our archdiocese.

Their order, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, was founded by Blessed Mary Theresa of Jesus in 1833. While their charism focused mainly on Catholic education, today Sr. Mary Jeanne and Sr. Connie fill a variety of other roles.

Sister Connie came to the archdiocese in 2018. Her work consists mainly in being the spiritual chair of the local Catholic Women’s League, accompanying the sick and elderly, working with the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis, and helping out with sacramental preparation. It’s a much different life than the 40 years she spent as a teacher, teaching children as young as four and as old as 11.

Sisters with seminarian Thomas Wollis outside Our Lady of Peace Parish in Peace River.

“I’ve enjoyed it. Some people call it retirement; I like to call it ‘refirement’,” said Harkin. “It’s new fire that comes in and makes me excited about what I’m doing. I’m learning lots, it stirs up my faith, and I feel like I never stop learning. And I pray to God I don’t stop learning.”

Sister Mary Jeanne helped open the school sisters’ house in Peace River, coming with two other sisters in 2002. She’s the only one of those three nuns still working in the archdiocese.

When she first arrived 20 years ago, the two roles that the sisters were asked to fill were in adult lay formation and pastoral assistance. Given Mary Jeanne’s experience working on the missions in Peru, her heart was seeking something else. She longed to be on the periphery, with the poor and the disenfranchised.

Four of the School Sisters of Notre Dame who served our archdiocese. From left to right, Sr. Eileen Pautler, Sr. Louise Vanderploeg, Sr. Mary Jeanne & Sr. Connie.

After speaking to her Mother Superior about where she felt the Spirit was calling her, Mary Jeanne was informed that she would be sent to Peace River to be a presence of Church amongst the Indigenous communities of Grouard-McLennan.

It is a great joy for Davidson to fulfill such a mission, and she hopes to carry the many lessons she learned through working with the poor of Peru into her work here.

“What I learned through those years in Peru is to take off my shoes and listen – the people will show what is needed,” said Mary Jeanne. “When I first went to the missions I was fired up. I couldn’t wait to bring Jesus to the poor. But you know what? He is already there. If you could know how present Jesus is among the poor, how they know Him. They were the ones teaching me who Jesus is.”

Sister Mary Jeanne Davidson has worked intimately with the Indigenous communities of our archdiocese over the past few years.

For both Sr. Mary Jeanne and Sr. Connie, their journey into sisterhood began in their earliest days of childhood.

Sister Mary Jeanne recalls her first day at school, where she was taught by the Holy Sisters of Mary in Kenora, Ontario. She returned home that day to tell her mom that she will one day be “a sister or a mommy”.

But as a teenager, thoughts of religious life fell to the back of her mind. Then in Grade 12, at a time when she had not thought about becoming a sister in many years, Davidson decided to attend a retreat for all graduating students. At that time Davidson was already making plans to go to college in Thunder Bay. She and her boyfriend were discussing future plans for marriage. But then came a moment that would change the direction of her life forever.

Sister Mary Jeanne shortly after her first profession of vows.

“I was at prayer, it was quiet in the chapel. Then inside of me something came like a little nudging invitation – ‘Come, follow me’.”

In the depths of her heart Mary Jeanne began addressing Jesus, telling Him of all the plans she had laid out for her life, but still the invitation kept coming into her heart – “Come. Follow me.”

Over the next nine days, late at night, Sister Mary Jeanne would return to that chapel and pray a novena to the Holy Spirit, hoping certainty over this invitation would come her way. After much prayer and deliberation, Sister Mary Jeanne heard the voice of Jesus answering within her heart.

“Jesus said, ‘My love for you is leaving you free. If you were to feel called to marriage, with a husband and family, you know I would love you. I’m inviting you to follow me’,” Mary Jeanne recalled. “And in the end, I finally let go. I said, ‘God, I’m coming. I want to follow you. I desire to give you my life’. And in that journey – there was lots of letting go.”

Sr. Connie Harkin, left, Fr. Nel Esguerra and Sr. Mary Jeanne Davidson gather for a photo outside Our Lady of Peace Church in Peace River, to commemorate Sr. Mary Jeanne’s 60th anniversary of professed vows.

This is only an excerpt. 

Read the full story in the March 2022 edition of Northern Light

Learn more about Sister Connie and Sister Mary Jeanne’s vocation stories in this video: