Christian Religious Communities

Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys
Marguerite Bourgeoys was canonized in 1982 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-12340).
Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, Exterior
Exterior view of the Abbey Church, designed by Dom Paul Bellot, a Benedictine monk (courtesy Dan S. Hanganu).
The convalescent ward of the Hôtel-Dieu, around 1875 (courtesy National Gallery of Canada).

Christian Religious Communities

 Christian religious communities are groups of religious (ie, men or women who have chosen to devote their lives to the work of their respective churches). In Canada, although some religious are within the various communions of the ORTHODOX CHURCH, more are Anglican and by far the greatest number are Roman Catholic.

Roman Catholic

Religious communities in the Roman Catholic Church are associations of men or women approved by ecclesiastical authority as living out the love of God in a common life marked by vows or promises of poverty, chastity and obedience according to the particular charism of their founder as specified in constitutional documents. According to their state of life, communities may be clerical, made up of priests and aspirants to the priesthood; or lay, whether of men or women.

According to the force of their vows, communities may be divided into 4 categories: orders, with solemn vows, were usually founded before the 18th century and may be made up of monks or nuns, canons regular or canonesses, of mendicants or of regular clerics; congregations, with simple vows, include most modern communities of men or women; secular institutes, whose members normally take private vows or promises and do not live in community are a creation of this century; societies of common life are usually made up of priests who share a common work without special vows.

According to their purpose, they may be active, taking on various types of charitable work, or contemplative, given primarily to prayer. With respect to ecclesiastical authority, they may be either of pontifical right, if the community has been approved by the Holy See, or of diocesan right, if approval has come only from the bishop of a diocese. All of these varieties are found in Canada.

NEW FRANCE was the place to which the first religious communities came. Two French Benedictine priests probably came with Jacques CARTIER on his second voyage (1535-36). The Récollets began missionary work with the natives in 1615, at the invitation of Samuel de CHAMPLAIN, and in 1625 were joined by the Jesuits; but in 1629, with the capture of the colony by the KIRKE brothers, both communities were compelled to leave. In 1633, after the colony had been returned to France, only the Jesuits were permitted to resume their work.

The Jesuit missionaries' work among the Huron (see BRÉBEUF; STE-MARIE AMONG THE HURON), culminating in the Jesuit martyrdom of the 1640s, was reported in the JESUIT RELATIONS and certainly became the best-known aspect of the colony. In 1657 the Sulpicians, a community of priests established in 1642 for the education of the diocesan clergy, came to Montréal.

 By that time, religious communities of women had also been established. In 1639 two cloistered orders came to Québec: the AUGUSTINES DE LA MISÉRICORDE DE JÉSUS and the URSULINES. The Hospitalières were a community from Dieppe who founded the first HÔTEL-DIEU, or hospital; they had just recently adopted the Rule of St Augustine and the cloistered life of canonesses regular. The Ursulines, led by MARIE DE L'INCARNATION, came on the same ship to open a school for French and native girls.

Another group, the Religieuses hospitalières de Saint-Joseph (or Hospitallers of St-Joseph), was founded in France in 1636 by Jérôme Royer de La Dauversière specifically to establish a hospital in his projected settlement at Montréal, but it was unable to come until 1659 to take over the work begun by Jeanne MANCE.

  In 1658 Marguerite BOURGEOYS, who had come to Montréal 5 years before, gathered the first members of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame to begin their work of education. In the 1690s foundations were established by the Augustines for the care of the sick poor in Québec and by the Ursulines for both teaching and care of the sick in Trois-Rivières.

In 1737 Marguerite d'YOUVILLE founded what became known as the GREY NUNS to assume charge of the General Hospital of Montréal from the Frères Charon, a community of brothers founded for this work in 1694 but in the process of dissolution by 1737. Marguerite d'Youville was canonized in 1994, making her the first Canadian-born Saint.

When the British conquered New France in 1760, there were 3 clerical communities there: Jesuits, Récollets (who had returned in 1670) and Sulpicians, for a total of 79 priests. There were also 7 communities of women, totalling 204 sisters. The British refused to allow the Jesuits and the Récollets to receive new members, but the Sulpicians, who could present themselves as diocesan clergy, were able to carry on. The women's communities, regarded by the British as less dangerous and as offering valuable social services, were allowed to continue. By 1837, although no new foundations had been made, there were over 300 professed sisters.

Meanwhile the structures of the church had been expanding, a process in which religious priests played some part. Capuchins were active in and around Halifax from 1785 to 1827 and a Trappist missionary in Nova Scotia founded a priory at Tracadie in 1815. But it was the establishment of the diocese of Montréal in 1836 that brought a dramatic change.

In 1837 Bishop LARTIGUE of Montréal invited the Brothers of the Christian Schools (Christian Brothers) to open a school, and by 1850 there were 107 brothers from Québec joined with 17 from France. When Bishop Ignace BOURGET succeeded Lartigue in 1840, developments came even more quickly. In 1841, on a visit to Europe, Bourget approached several French communities.

The Oblates of Mary Immaculate, founded in 1816 by Eugène de Mazenod, were looking for a mission outside France. They came to Montréal in 1841 and soon moved on; they were in Ottawa and on James Bay by 1844, and in the following year they went to Red River [Winnipeg] to begin their work in the West. Their Canadian recruitment was slower than that of the Christian Brothers, but between 1841 and 1876 some 151 Oblates came to Canada from France.

In 1842 the Jesuits, also at Bourget's invitation, sent 6 priests and 3 lay brothers to Montréal. The Viatorians (founded 1831 by Louis Querbes) hesitated, but in 1847 they sent 5 priests to open a college, school and novitiate in Joliette. Also in 1847 the Congregation of the Holy Cross, under its founder, Basile Moreau, sent out a priest, 7 brothers and 4 sisters. For them, as for the Jesuits, this was part of a larger move to the US. Elsewhere, in 1850 Armand de Charbonnel, second bishop of Toronto, brought in the Basilian Fathers (founded 1822 in France).

If the influx of new communities of men in this period was remarkable, still more so was the founding of women's communities. Here too the influence of Bishop Bourget was strong. In 1844 he approved Émilie Gamelin's founding the Sisters of Providence to care for the poor, and the establishment of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary by Eulalie Durocher and her companions for the work of teaching. In 1848, to care for unwed mothers and their children, he called on Rosalie Jetté to found the Soeurs de miséricorde. In 1850 he approved the Sisters of Saint Anne, whose task, according to the inspiration of their foundress Marie-Esther Blondin, was to work in the public schools of the countryside.

Elsewhere there were similar developments. In English-speaking Canada small contingents of sisters were brought from the US to found new communities. Thus the Sisters of Charity came to Halifax in 1849, the Sisters of Saint Joseph to Toronto in 1851 and to Hamilton in 1852, and the Ursulines to Chatham in the diocese of London in 1860. The Sisters of Providence were established in Kingston in 1861 as an independent foundation from the community of Montréal.

Even in these beginnings a striking difference can be seen in the development of men's and women's communities in Canada. Of some 118 men's communities which have had a presence in Canada, only 10 were founded here and only 4 of these still exist. These 4 are all societies of the common life, devoted mainly to missionary work, and they make up only 4% of the number of Canadian male religious today. On the other hand, of the 229 women's communities that have had a presence in Canada, some 75 were founded in this country, and of these only 6 no longer exist. Of the women in religious communities in Canada today, over 70% belong to communities founded here.

The work of religious in education at every level, in care for the sick, the poor, orphans and aged, has been of great importance. Everywhere their schools and hospitals have been among the earliest institutions established. They went to the West and North as missionaries to the Indians and Inuit and, from the early 20th century, to missions overseas as well.

Increased government activity in education, health and welfare has greatly affected the work of religious. In Québec especially, the QUIET REVOLUTION of the 1960s led to the withdrawal of many revolution responsibilities from their hands. The Second Vatican Council brought a profound process of internal renewal in almost all communities, but along with this has gone a crisis of withdrawals by individual members and a drop in vocations (joining by new members).

There are 30 068 Roman Catholic religious in Canada including 4372 priests, 11 605 brothers and 24 091 sisters. Two-thirds (including 85% of the brothers) are in Québec. These figures show a reduction of 54% since 1967, when there were 78 269 religious in the country. There are fewer now, and they are older. Approximately 74% of the women and 62% of the men religious in Canada are over 65. Both communities, men with only 0.6% of professed members under 35, and women, with only 0.3% under 35, face serious immediate problems.

Despite such changes, however, the work remains significant. There are some 1817 active in education, 1713 in hospitals and 1179 in social work. There are 3310 religious in parochial and diocesan functions. The 2220 Canadian religious on missions in Latin America (697), Africa (697), Asia (295), Oceania (82) and elsewhere (449) are not included in the figures for religious in Canada, but their work is an important aspect of the life and work of their communities.




Anglican religious communities provide an ordered life of prayer, study and community service and seek generally to advance the spiritual life of the whole church. Communities were re-established in the Church of England during the "catholic revival" sparked by the Oxford Movement, which began as a result of John Keble's sermon on National Apostasy in 1833. Members of these communities take lifelong vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The basis of the community life is work, worship and recreation. Worship includes the recitation of the daily offices and participation in the eucharist. Work includes teaching, the giving of retreats and conferences, the care of the sick and social work. Recreation includes rest, diversion, meals, edification and exercise.

There are 2 orders for women in Canada. The sisterhood of St John the Divine was founded in 1884 by Hannah Grier Coome (Mother Hannah) and is the only order of entirely Canadian origin. In 1999 it had 38 members. The Community of Sisters of the Church was established in England in 1870 and a branch opened in Canada in 1890. It has 7 members in Canada.

The 2 communities for men which have been active in Canada are the Society of St John the Evangelist and the Order of the Holy Cross. The SSJE was founded by R.M. Benson at Cowley in Oxford, England in 1866. A daughter community was subsequently established at Cambridge, Mass, from which the Canadian community was established at Emsdale, Ontario in 1927. In 1928 the Mission House was moved to Bracebridge, where it remained until 1983. By that time the order had declined in numbers and the remaining members moved to Hamilton, Ont. The order ceased operations in Canada in 1984, although with the hope of returning. The remaining members moved to Cambridge, Mass.

The OHC, founded in the USEA in 1884, opened a Canadian Priory in Toronto in 1973. In addition to working for the fostering of spiritual life in the church, its 4 members work in various parishes in the area.


Orthodox Church

Eastern Orthodoxy is the cradle of Christian monasticism. Following the example of Anthony of Egypt (251-356), hundreds of men and women went into the desert to seek God and personal holiness. The wisdom of these anchorites (hermits) has been collected in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The Coptic monk Pachomius (290-346) and Basil of Caesarea (330-379) gave institutional shape to cenobitic monasticism. In Palestine Sabas (439-532) developed the lavra (laura), a colony of anchorites living under the direction of an abbot. The skete, consisting of one or 2 monks directed by a spiritual elder, is a more recent development. Theodore the Studite (759-826) sought to tighten monastic discipline and revive the cenobitic life as taught by Basil of Caesarea.

The heart of Orthodox monasticism, Mount Athos (the Holy Mountain) in Northern Greece, underwent a spiritual revival in the early 14th century led by the hesychasts and Gregory Palamas (1296-1359). Hesychasts seek inner quietude, often by practicing yogalike exercises and reciting the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me).

Eastern Orthodox monks are not organized into religious orders. Each monastery follows its own customs and rules, inspired by the great teachers of tradition.

In Canada, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia established the women's Monastery of the Protection of the Most Holy Mother of God (1953) at Bluffton, Alta, and 2 men's monasteries: Holy Dormition (1955) at Northville, Alta, and Holy Transfiguration (1960) in Mansonville, Qué.

The Canadian diocese of the Orthodox Church in America has established 2 religious brotherhoods, the Fraternité Missionaire de St. Séraphim (1991) in Montréal and the Missionary Brotherhood of St. Silouan (1995) at Johnstown, Ont, and 3 monasteries: Holy Transfiguration Skete (1977), moved in 1982 from Rawdon, Qué, to Fitch Bay, Qué, St. Seraphim Skete (female, 1978) in Rawdon, and L'Ermitage de la Protection de la Mère de Dieu (1992) in St. Eusèbe de Temiscouata, Qué.


Authors contributing to this article:

Further Reading

  • . D. J. Chitty, The Desert A City (1966); P. Sherrard, Athos the Holy Mountain (1982).