Charism Stories

Sisters' Stories: Sr. Emmanuelle's | Sr. Dianna | Sr. Mary Ellen | Sr. Marge | Sr. Celia

Friends and Associates: Ellen | Barbra | Rosaleen

Emmannuelle's Story

Sœur Emmanuelle was one of the most popular figures in France. An outspoken and irreverent defender of the poor, to whom she dedicated her later years, she became a television favourite full of verve and joie de vivre, capable of speaking bluntly to politicians and celebrities alike, and without a hint of unction or moral hauteur.

A rebel, she greatly admired John Paul II but continued to dispense contraception to weary mothers in her Egyptian dispensary and to champion the right of Catholic priests to marry. Nor did she hide the difficulties of the life of celibacy, which she entered at the age of 20 in 1929.

Born Madeleine Cinquin in Brussels in 1908, she had a Belgian mother and a French father who was a manufacturer of lingerie. When she was 6, her father drowned, and she witnessed the event from the beach. Later in life she would say that it was this tragedy that determined her future: “That Sunday morning, the little girl understood that you cannot hang on to the foam. In my unconscious, my vocation dates from that. I sought the absolute, not the ephemeral.”

Not that the trauma kept the young woman from enjoying the pleasures of being young (and taking up smoking in a typical act of rebellion) during the Roaring Twenties, or from being attracted to handsome young men. But in 1929, after studying religion and philosophy at the Sorbonne, she entered the order of Notre Dame de Sion.

These nuns ran several renowned French schools around the Mediterranean. Emmanuelle worked in Istanbul, Tunis and Alexandria. For nearly four decades she taught the daughters of wealthy families. This was a long way from her childhood dreams of helping the poor, or even martyrdom.
In fact it was retirement that enabled Emmanuelle to fulfil that dream. With the blessing of her superiors, she settled in Cairo at the age of 62, was soon living in a metal hut in the city slums at Ezbet el Nakhl.

It was a life characterized by poverty in all its debilitating  manifestations. Sœur Emmanuelle, as she soon became known, taught the children to read, helped mothers to regain their footing and their pride, took children to see the Nile. She opened a dispensary and kindergarten. The countless examples of male negligence and brutality made her a staunch feminist. Her experience led her to the conclusion that has since been spread by so many organisations and experts: education and the liberation of women are the best hope of poor countries.

At first, the majority of her flock were Copts, but she was soon working with Muslims as well, and refused to let religion get in the way of human need. On her door was a cross and crescent moon, with the words “God is love”. She worked tirelessly to bring the religious communities together.
“Respect those who think differently,” was one of her favourite maxims.

As her activities developed, in Egypt and across the world, she began travelling tirelessly to raise funds through her association, Les Amis de Sœur Emmanuelle.

She left Egypt in 1993 with the greatest reluctance — “I wish I could have died surrounded by my rag-pickers”. She moved to a retirement home for nuns in Callian, in south east France. However, even at 85, she continued to travel and to campaign against poverty. She wrote several books about her experiences, her faith and her cause: Richesse de la pauvreté (The Riches of Poverty, 2001), Secrets de vie (Secrets of Life, 2000), Yalla les jeunes (Come on, you young people!, 1997), Le paradis, c'est les autres (Heaven is other people, 1995), and J’ai cent ans et je voudrais vous dire (I’m a hundred years old, and I want to tell you, August 2008).

Sœur Emmanuelle, nun, humanitarian, broadcaster and writer, was born Madeleine Cinquin on November 16, 1908. She died on October 20, 2008, aged 99 Click here to read more articles and stories.

Ellen's Story

Greetings from Central America! Thanks for the opportunity to contribute my story. Here, in all sincerity, is my "Confession" fashioned after the model of St. Augustine's great testimony to the work of God in his life, a "confession" in one of its two spiritual meanings, that is, "to praise and glorify God in an exercise in self knowledge and true humility in the atmosphere of grace and reconciliation."

There have been, at least, two providential invitations in my life: the first, my formation at Sion where I lived for 19 years; and the second invitation, to live and work in Central America for 24 years. This latter came about not long after my Mom's death on January 20, 1984. (Some time before that, our family discovered the truth of my mom's ancestry, i.e. that she had been born in Brooklyn, N.Y. of Jewish parents, a secret she had kept from us for many years.) So, in the plan of God, Sion and its mission to the people of God...and that call for me to go to a poor third world country, came together.

In this "confession", these are the highlights as they relate to Sion. Arriving in Nicaragua in 1984, my reconnection with Sion came through Sr. Bertalina, with whom I had lived in community in Moose Jaw Sion. One Sunday at Mass in a Nica Church, I turned around for the greeting of peace, and there she was! This reconnection with Sion was also strengthened through friendship with Sr. Ana Maria Murcia. With her, I was able to become involved in Barrio work. Again, it was through two Sions, Sr.Ana Maria and Sr.Hilda, that in 1986, I legally adopted two orphaned Nicaraguan children, ages 10 and 12. They have been indescribable "regales de Dios" (gifts of God) and still are the warp and woof of my life, now both married and parents.

From 1984-1993, I taught English at the American Nicaraguan International School and became involved in sensitizing many of my students to social justice issues and a project to help the barrio poor. (It darn near got me fired, too, but God saved me from such a fate!) Each Friday, after classes, my students and I went to Rene Cisneros, and El Recreo to tutor poor children in reading and math. It was a life-changing experience for many of the ANS students, the majority of whom lived in the wealthy enclaves of Managua. Without Sion, I would not have had that barrio connection.

Sometime before 1993, I decided to bring Juana (19) and Antonio (17) to Canada to learn English and acquire a job skill. Well, "the best laid plans of mice and men etc." Juana decided to stay in Nicaragua. She was in love. It was impossible to help her to see that, to a very real extent, her future was at stake. So, without her, Antonio and I flew to Saskatoon, where Antonio learned English and where Sr. Beth was so good to us. Then because I could not find work, we moved to Calgary and with Theresa Murphy's help, I subbed in the Catholic Schools while Antonio finished H.S. and worked at Walmart!!

In 2000, Antonio and I drove from Calgary, Alberta to Nicaragua, a journey of faith, for sure. Those are some of the nuts and bolts of the workings of God's providence for us.

In 2002, I was hired by Ave Maria University here in San Marcos, where for three years, I taught English and Communications. Juana's relationship had broken down, and so I offered her work as my secretary, but my job, and hers, too, came to a sudden and dramatic end after a whistle-blower crisis involving U finances. A number of injustices occurred. At the moment, I supplement my Canadian pension with editing for the University. But it is a constant struggle. Still we are fortunate, for example, my small church community in Calgary has just given Antonio a two-year scholarship to study Computer maintenance so that he can become Nica certified. Antonio and Juana (now married) are job searching, an uphill battle, because while there is lots of work, low salaries are the great institutional sin of the society. Minimum wage in most sectors: $100.00 per mo. (Forgot to tell you that Antonio got married a year after our return.)

The question: how does anyone survive, not just physically, but spiritually, under such conditions? A great help for many is the proclamation of the Latino bishops concerning "God's preferential option for the poor" encompassing not only the unjustly deprived of this earth but also those who come to their assistance. It is an incomparable grace to live among people of faith and to witness how they love and look after one another against great odds. Yes, "sin abounds, but grace is present in even more abundance." And I owe Sion many thanks for its emphasis on the importance of a prayer life. Opportunities for God's work are endless e.g. I am in the process of preparing Antonio's son, Marcos (6) for his first confession and communion Spanish!

Notwithstanding Sion's gifts to me, and since this is a "confession," in the Augustinian tradition, I continually ask my Father's pardon for the great sin of my life which was not trusting Him enough when I was at Sion, and where so many things seemed to go so wrong for me. But God, in Jesus, raises us up each day from death to life. I pray to those blessed Sionians (Noreen, Winifred, Gertrudine etc.) who lived lives of such fidelity and dedicated love, and I deeply admire those still at Sion.

Dianna's Story

Parish Ministry: "In other words, I'm into everything"

Sr. Dianna Lieffers has worked for 33 years at St. Gabriel's, an inner city parish in downtown Montreal. This area was first settled by the Irish near where the ships docked and where 6000 died of ship fever and typhoid. Every year there is a special Mass at the parish, after which the people march to the big black stone monument to the early settlers who died there.

"My work consists mostly at looking after the needs of the less fortunate. We have many! I run a food bank, furniture depot, clothing and household items and much more and all the donations are from the community at large. I visit the families of the sick and the elderly and bring them Communion. I prepare Sunday Liturgy, train lectors and ministers of Communion, have evening prayer groups and Communion Services. In other words, I'm into everything. Of the two priests, one has a full time job elsewhere and the other is retired. We have a whole army of generous volunteers who are worth their weight in gold and always ready to help."

Mary Ellen's Story

25 Years: Mary Ellen Coombe - Celebrated: 1982 in Toronto – 2007 in Chicago

Sister Mary Ellen Coombe celebrated her 25th anniversary of vows and her 18th year in Chicago where she serves as Associate Director at the Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Archdiocese of Chicago and Director of the Institute of Catholic-Jewish education, a special project of the Sisters of Sion, the American Jewish Committee and the Archdiocese. Surrounded by her co-workers, friends and Sisters, she was honored at the American Jewish Committee's annual dinner on September 19.

"Sister Mary Ellen Coombe has lived her education and charism (mission) of the Sisters of Sion through teaching, preaching, and her ability to bring together Christians, Jews and Muslims in openness and peace." (Program citation)

Life spent building bridges - Nun has promoted education, dialogue between Jews, Catholics, Muslims
By Margaret Ramirez (Tribune religion reporter) - October 5, 2007

The crosses on the living room wall and the collection of menorahs along the bookcase of Sister Mary Ellen Coombe's cozy Edgewater apartment tell the story of her mission to build bridges between faiths.

The complete article can be viewed at:

Marge's Story

For almost 25 years I worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, from the exciting earliest days of space exploration. During those years I was also involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue and with various social justice issues. It was a full and, I felt, a productive life. However, when, due to cuts in federal funding of NASA, JPL decided to significantly increase military research, I felt that I could no longer stay, so I left JPL not knowing where I would go, what I would do. A widow with grown children, I prayed and reflected for almost a year. During that time I once again traveled for several months in Israel and for three of those months dug in an archeological dig in Israel. Also I spent time praying and reflecting in our convent in Ein Karem. While in Israel I met the Sisters of Sion for the first time.

The more I learned about Sion's charism, the more drawn I became to Sion. One thing led to another and I entered, moving from Southern California to Toronto, on to England, then back to Toronto.

In Canada my primary work was in Jewish-Christian relations working at the grassroots level, primarily within the Jewish community. I worked extensively with Holocaust survivors, studying the economic and political situation in Germany and Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, trying to understand how the Holocaust could have happened. More and more I came to realize the impact of social and economic injustice and the violation of human rights in furthering a situation like the Holocaust.

In 1990 I moved back to the States; I began to study Catholic teachings on worker justice as well as the teachings of other Christian and non-Christian groups. I continued working in Jewish-Christian relations, but also to work more seriously on the grassroots level on issues of social justice, particularly economic injustice affecting workers.

When I moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, although I continue some Jewish-Christian involvement, my primary work is concerned with labor/economic justice. I have supported various worker efforts to confront employer imposed injustice, for instance, I picketed with hotel workers on strike, nurses on strike; various informational efforts in support of workers efforts for justice, such as packing house workers, auto workers, nursing home workers, school bus drivers, and such. Most recently for 444 days I picketing and supported union mechanics on strike against Northwest Airlines, in addition to being on the solidarity committee supporting the strike effort. In recognition of this work, I was made a life-time honorary member of the local union.

I see the outsourcing of good paying jobs, the compromising of working conditions and the eradication of benefits, pensions and health care, and am deeply concerned for the impact on the individual worker and for the shrinking of the middle class. Therefore, I'm actively involved in efforts to support workers against loss of jobs and encroaching degradation of working people. been on several solidarity committees to help workers in strike situations; I'm involved in enlisting public support for the plight of workers unjustly treated by their corporate employers as well as lobbying state and national legislators regarding legislation effecting labor. I'm a long-time member of a national interfaith organization supporting worker justice.

Barbra's Story

Seven years ago, half way through the school year, I arrived at École Bilingue Notre Dame de Sion to take over the grade one class. This is how I first met the Sisters of Sion, through one sister, Sister Jackie Chenard. I asked her who the gentleman above the light switches in each classroom was, and if she could tell me a little bit about her order. At first she just looked at me as if she was wondering where to begin. I understand, now, that there are no quick, easy answers to these questions.

I am still at the school today, and so is Sister Jackie. I now teach the two Grade Six English classes, all the morality classes, and am the English librarian for the library. Over the years I have been allowed to learn who the gentlemen above the light switches is, as do all the children who attend our school. His name was Theodore Ratisborne and he is the founder of the Sisters of Sion. He told them to do everything with love, and they do. It has inspired me to try and do this as well in my daily interactions with the children and my personal life.

The school's mission statement which allows for a celebration of diversity is something I feel very strongly about. Over the past few years it has become apparent that we must all work very hard towards this end. In 2004 I traveled to Chicago to attend the Islamic studies days that had been organized by Sister Stephanie and Sister Mary Ellen. It was a wonderful enriching experience that continues to help me work with the diversity within our school and has significantly broadened my understanding of the world.

Two years ago I attended Chapter and felt once again very blessed to be a part of such a wonderful circle. During the week I was there I felt very touched in many ways. The image of Biblical Sarah is one that has stayed with me these past few years. (Isabel portrayal of God was also a personal highlight.)

At present I am attending the Montreal Sister's discussion group around the Tikun Olam Articles and am a part of the fledgling Membership committee. Both have afforded me the opportunity to learn and reflect.

In January of this year I went to visit our sister school in Kansas City. What an enriching experience! As proud as I have always been of how hard our school works to instill the values of respect and the Spirit of Sion into our students, knowing that there was another school in another country that shared this common thread with us gave me a great deal of hope for our future.

The Sisters constant movement towards reconciliation in the world is a very powerful needed message in today's world. I have become a better person because they have touched me.

École Bilingue Notre Dame de Sion, St. Laurent, Quebec

Celia's Story

My experience of Sion's charism is linked almost inextricably with my vocation to religious life and my identity as a person from a mixed family, Jewish and Catholic.

I was drawn to religious life as a small child. I went to a parish school and, I think, the initial impulse came from the desire to be "like" Mother Theodore, the wonderful Ursuline nun who introduced a crowd of four- and five-year-olds to school. The desire to be a sister, however, didn't disappear when I went to first grade! Gradually, I began to understand that being a sister was about the absoluteness of God, of being loved by God and loving God in return. I continued to want to live this in religious life.

School brought other awarenesses, though. When I was in first grade I heard that the Jews killed Jesus and that the unbaptized would not go to heaven ( this, of course is incorrect). I didn't know that my father was Jewish, though I was aware that he was not Catholic and went to church with us only for special events or holidays. One day as Daddy was weeding the flower bed at the foot of the front porch of our home, I asked him where he was baptized and was startled to hear, "I wasn't baptized. I'm a Jew and Jews don't baptize their children." It was easily sorted out. I didn't say any more to my father, but I sat there on the front step as he pulled weeds and thought, "Hmmm. My teacher says that if you're not baptized, you don't go to heaven, but my daddy's different."

These were the ruminations of a small child, but growing up was marked by reflection on what it meant to be Jewish. It was the 1950's and '60's, and we were the only mixed family in our community. There were no models, and the Jewish community, in which my father became quite active, was very small. Anti-Semitic remarks were common, whether in the classroom, the playground, or on a date. My mother told us to be proud of who we were; she also told us to "blend in," "don't be different." Eventually my desire to make sense of it all led me to ... the LIBRARY! The local public library had a small collection, a few shelves of books and, in the course of my high school, I read them all.

I continued to be drawn to religious life. We were taught meditation in religion class. One of the sisters in whom I had confided, loaned me books for spiritual reading. I'd learned about the Sisters of Sion by reading an article about Theodore and Alphonse, and Patrice encouraged me to contact the sisters in Kansas City. So ... in grade 12, I went to St. Louis, where I met the sisters studying there. I entered at the end of that year.

I entered Sion, rather than the Ursulines who had educated me, because of the congregation's charism. I understood that to be about being with the Jewish people, about living with - inhabiting – the Word of God. Eventually I came to understand how that also includes the concern for people of all religious traditions, and for social justice. I understood and continue to understand our charism as profoundly contemplative, grounded in solitary and communal prayer, seeking the company of Jesus who calls me and studying His Word.

Entering Sion because of the charism meant that, from the beginning of my religious life, I felt responsible to and for that charism, the gift of God that shapes who we are, who I am. At the end of my novitiate Marie-Noelle de Baillehache and Mary Kelly, two remarkable women who were pioneers in the development of Jewish-Christian relations, came to give us courses on Bible and Jewish studies. I felt as though God were calling me to think about scholarly work as a way to respond to Sion's charism.

That particular awareness of call to scholarly work became clearer in my university years, in the process of my studies and in discernment with the community. I realized that what I could do would be to specialize in the study of early Judaism and early Christianity, exploring the intricate, murky and sometimes painful story of their origins and inter-relations.

In my ministry, scholarly work joins with grass-roots inter-religious involvement, both in parish and neighborhood. The latter includes conversation with Muslims, who form a large proportion of this neighborhood. It also reaches across the socio-economic span from middle class to poor. Half of the neighborhood, and thus the parish, are undocumented immigrants.

My experience of charism has been profoundly shaped these past five years by the experience of 9/11 and the ways in which that tragedy has been exploited, by our government and others. Here in New York, people live with new levels of anxiety, and the challenge to learn to be with those different from ourselves is all the more urgent. This becomes increasingly complicated in the context of the current national debate around the issue of immigration. I find myself simply called to be with folks - the undocumented, the newly arrived South Asian Muslim immigrants, those more established. In a neighborhood where most of the Muslim women do not yet speak English, all of us - as one of my Muslim friends says - can smile and say "Hello." The levels of violence that affect my country, the war and the justification of so much injustice under the name of the "war on terror" are often overwhelming. In terms of Sion's charism, I feel called to be with those most affected in this society – immigrants and Muslims – and to join those building bridges between the Jewish community and the immigrant and Muslim communities, especially in this neighborhood.

All of this is about response to and responsibility for charism in the context of ministry. It implies - always - collaboration with others, whether with students and colleagues in the academic world, or fellow-parishioners and other folks from the neighborhood community.

Last year, however, I began to feel called to invite women to consider religious life as an option, including religious life at Sion. Quite simply, I love this vocation to consecrated life at Sion with a passion and want to share it with others. So, I invite women in personal conversations. This is all still very new, but people seem glad to have been invited. We'll see where it goes!

I also have felt called to share our charism by once again holding regular retreat evenings - a few hours of biblical reflection in silence and reflective conversation, of sharing food and talk. There are usually five or so women who come.

My students, colleagues and neighbors teach me to listen to the Word in ever new ways. The religiously diverse context in which I live has led me to understand and appreciate more profoundly what it means for me to be a Roman Catholic Christian. The immediacy of the faith of so many who surround me calls me beyond familiar boundaries into the mystery of God's own self. And people's struggles to be faithful to their families challenge me to live more deeply my own vocation to consecrated celibacy at Sion.

I'm richly blessed in this gift we call "charism," and I'm deeply grateful for the chance to reflect on this.

Rosaleen's Story

As the founding Coordinator of the Archdiocesan Ecumenical/Interfaith Office and the Founding Coordinator of the Edmonton Interfaith Centre, I have had an opportunity to coordinate many firsts for the Archdiocese and the City of Edmonton.  I can give you only a glimpse of my ministry in this area.

When I was working in the schools, the Religion Consultant, a priest, happened to drop into my office.  During our conversation, I mentioned that I was planning a year in Israel and his response was, “It will change you.”

And it was one of the defining moments in my life.

The past thirty plus years, and part of that time I was still working in the schools, I have had the privilege of being called to build relationships with the Interchurch and Interfaith Communities.

Over the years, I coordinated many, many interchurch and interfaith dialogues and prayer services from 1)  the first ecumenical prayer service at the request of CBC and the first to be  broadcast on T.V. 2) to making history in  Edmonton with the first Jewish/ Roman Catholic Prayer and Dialogue at the Synagogue with the Rabbi and the Archbishop officiating 3) to organizing a major celebration, the only religious service held, for Edmonton’s Centennial that brought together Faith Leaders from 13 faiths and over 500 from the multifaith communities who filled our beautiful City Hall  4) to the first Jewish/Christian/Muslim dialogue that drew about 300 participants 5) to being a consultant to hospital Chaplains setting up multifaith chapels 6) to the first and many interfaith prayer services for elimination of racial discrimination remembered on March 21.

I have spoken to many different and varied interchurch and interfaith groups and events locally and as far away as Cape Town, South Africa and Barcelona, Spain at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. 

Frequently, I have been called upon by the Provincial Government, City Council, the Archdiocese and many organizations for correct protocol with the multifaith community.

At a big gala, the City of Edmonton recognized my work with a plaque presented by the Mayor.  It still amazes me that my religious work was recognized by the city.

This is but a glimpse of my journey and each day I realize all is privilege and gift.