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29 December 2020

The “460”: A community of young people and sisters

Sr. Marie-Pierre Delorme joined the congregation of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur in 1998, following her studies in engineering. She is currently responsible for the mission of the “460”, a student residence and chaplaincy for young adults in Ottawa (the previous chaplaincy and residence was known as “101 Parent”). She shares her thoughts on the experiences of the pandemic in this context and her hopes for returning to a “new normal”, and a more embodied one…

The inspiration and the mission

The mission of my congregation especially inspired me thanks to its work with youth. Growing up, many teenagers and young adults live their faith in solitude, given the aging Church in North America. This was my case, and I wished to offer something to help ease this isolation. The mission at 460 allows me to do so.

In 2019, we moved from the previous residence at 101 Parent Avenue, in Ottawa, and took on ownership of a house that had belonged to the Lasallian Brothers. We were happy to reinstate the home into a mission for the student community and for young workers, given our location on the University of Ottawa’s campus. There is an ecumenical chaplain on campus, and though there was a strong religious presence, mainly oblate with Saint Paul University, in the past, our mission offers community experience and activities for young Francophones, in a setting where religious presence is diminishing.

Practically speaking, our home has 14 rooms. We are four sisters so we can welcome 10 young women to stay with us and take part in our activities. The student residence has its own internal program (shared meals, prayer times, Bible studies…), and we offer a number of activities open to the public. In this ministry, it is essential to create activities and opportunities to meet youth. Then, if they wish to pursue this connection, they can do so through projects like an international cooperation trip, which generates a longer commitment and deeper faith development.

The impact of the pandemic

This year, including us four sisters, we are 13 women living together. Remote studying during the pandemic has encouraged many students to stay home with their parents; while international students chose to stay, otherwise the time zones would interfere with their schedules. We see many apartments for rent around campus and student housing is rather empty or even closed.

With regards to COVID-19, we consider our home a “bubble” and we act consequently. We ask the girls to take precautions with any exterior contacts. Our house is large enough to allow us to host a few people, with masks and distancing. We are a younger community but safety remains necessary, especially since our enthusiastic superior, Claudette, is 83 years old. Our youngest sister, Mona, is a high school chaplain, and Françoise takes care of maintenance and material needs for our home.

During lockdown, we had to set aside our public activities were put aside. This gave the student residence the chance to flourish. The girls didn’t have any exterior activities so they were glad to contribute to our communal life, and it was enriched both socially and spiritually. It has been a blessing in our ministry.

Generally speaking, our experience contrasts with what we have heard about isolation and mental health concerns among youth. We try to stay in touch with the youth of our wider network who don’t live here and who may feel fragile due to isolation. We call them and check in. We started some online sharing and prayer activities and we’re happy to see them join in on occasion. The biggest challenge, currently, is the reality of online schooling or working from home. It is especially tiring and
exacting, and people are fed up.

Each year, we usually offer two “awareness” or cooperation trips in the Dominican Republic, and a pilgrimage to Taizé. At the end of March 2020, we had to cancel our plans, given the situation. This was particularly sad for the two groups preparing for the Dominican Republic, who had worked on fundraising and learning Spanish since September 2019. We now hope to be able to travel with these groups in May and July 2021, if we can receive the vaccine on time. Meanwhile, the participants are perfecting their Spanish.

Most of our 2020 participants will be able to join the 2021 trips. In San José de Ocoa (DR), they will discover our local partner organization, founded by a Scarboro missionary. The youth will get to know the daily life in the Dominican countryside and contribute to a project such as building a house, a school or latrines, or working in reforestation. As for the trip to Taizé, we will plan that for 2022.

Towards a hybrid ministry?

Will the future of mission and ministry imply a return to in-person activities or a hybrid approach combined with virtual activities? I think that when COVID-19 will be “over”, we will have to work to rebuild the community dimension of our ministries. We have learned much working in virtual environments and we forged new habits. We save time by not having to travel to and from school, work and activities. It makes it easy to do many things at once, like listening to an online class while cooking. However, the in-person disposition is different: we are more available and vulnerable, and that is difficult to imitate when videoconferencing. I believe we will have to renew the value of in-person encounters. We will see. We still have both feet in this challenging reality and perhaps we cannot yet see the issues clearly. It boils down to a real and embodied presence for others. Be it the underprivileged people of the Dominican Republic or my sisters and students here at home, this embodied presence is the core of our Christian mission.

Sister Marie-Pierre Delorme, SSMN

This text is taken from the Fall 2020 issue of the ad vitam webzine “Hope in Times of the Pandemic”.