We Speak To The Poor By Our Lives


The following remembrance of Sister Mary Hamilton appeared in the Toronto Globe and Mail on October 23, 1998. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

In the 1930s, whenever Sister Mary Hamilton managed a few days off from her nursing duties as night supervisor at St. Vincent de Paul hospital in Brockville, Ont., she would visit the family farm in nearby Elgin. She was one of nine children, so family gatherings were large. The young children would giggle among themselves, wondering whether there was really any hair under the starched white habit Mary had recently acquired. No doubt, she laughed with them.

Not only an exceptional nurse (“the most dedicated nurse I ever met,” a fellow nurse told a vigil service in Kingston shortly after her death), Mary was also a woman of uncommon insight and humour. Shortly after approaching the doctor with her diagnosis already in hand (a kidney tumour — she wasn’t far off), I visited her hospital room. When she reported that she had been deluged with visitors — cousins, nieces, friends, fellow members of the Sisters of Providence — I suggested that, given the circumstances, she should grant them some special indulgences.

“We’ve gotten in trouble with those before,” she responded without missing a beat, her eyes laughing as she fingered the tube leading up to the nasal prongs that were feeding her oxygen.

Mary waited for three years after completing her nursing training before deciding to become a nun. She considered her options carefully. “When I was struggling with my call to religious life,” she recalled, “I used to go to a party, come home and say, ‘Is that all there is?’”

She would continue to ask questions, never becoming resistant to changing ideas and changing times as the years passed, welcoming the seismic shifts that accompanied Vatican II. The Sisters of Providence abandoned their habits and Mary no longer went by the name (Mary Robert) conferred upon her by the Bishop when she took her vows. She deployed a metaphor that sprang from her work in Moose Jaw’s maternity ward. “Groaning and upheaval in the Church and in religious life was a sign of a new birth, and certainly many of the changes were overdue.”

She went where she was needed, serving in hospitals in Brockville, Montreal, Moose Jaw, Smiths Falls, Edmonton, Kingston and Camrose. During her 15 years in Alberta she began to follow the fortunes of Edmonton’s pro sports teams. When she had time off, she liked to volunteer to babysit for single mothers and couples who could not afford a sitter.

On one occasion, however, she became so engrossed in the Saturday night Oilers’ game that she completely forgot about her young charges, who eventually returned to the living room to remind her that they were waiting for their story. Another time, a young father was surprised when the kindly, grey-haired nun who came to babysit glanced at the televised football game and informed him abruptly that she was an Edmonton Eskimo fan and that the Ottawa quarterback was “a bum.”

Mary stopped nursing in 1986, returning to Heathfield, the well-appointed motherhouse that the Sisters of Providence maintain in Kingston. She helped to start a residence for women with psychiatric problems and continued her pastoral care work. “I sit with the dying,” she said matter-of-factly.”

She did not become complacent in her later years. Indeed, she pushed in her own gentle way, scrutinizing the institutions to which she devoted her life as well as the society around her. She felt that she would like to see more “hands on” work with the poor, wondering whether there was a gap between what she and her fellow Sisters were doing and the way they were living.

“We speak to the poor by our lives,” she told Sister Lucy Myers in 1995. “We have this place to come to. It is the nerve centre of the Community and thank God we have it. But sometimes I am embarrassed by what we have.” Later that year she began heading down to Kingston’s city hall to participate in a silent vigil the Sisters of Providence had started to protest government policies targeting society’s weakest citizens. Mary liked to tell about the time a man yelled “Get a job!” from a passing car. “I don’t need a job,” she laughed, “but someone else does.”

Every Friday she would prop her sturdy cane against the limestone wall and sit in a folding chair. Sometimes she held a sign saying “Cuts hurt people.”

“The role of Sisters is not simply to exhort, but to join the struggle for social change,” she said on the first anniversary of the vigil. “It took me some time to be converted to that.”

Kingston writer Jamie Swift met Mary Hamilton in front of Kingston’s city hall in 1995.