Meet Sister Ellen Leonard, Who Helps Women Find their Voices
Sister Ellen Leonard
A profile of Sister Ellen Leonard, a Sister of St. Joseph
Sister Ellen Leonard: a woman of her time. She has
gone through great changes and herself been an agent of change.
With her community's support, she has grown and developed.
Meet someone who:
- Went from teaching Grade 1 to teaching theology at the
University of St. Michael's College
- Writes books as well as articles for religious journals
- Immersed herself in the many serious "ism's"
of our time including ecumenism and feminism.
Let's find out how all this came about.
The Sister Connection
"I entered the world under the watchful eye of Sister
Vincentia," is how Ellen describes her birth in 1933
at St. Michael's Hospital, run by the Sisters of St. Joseph
There were so many other connections to the Sisters. Her
mother had attended the Sisters of St. Joseph's boarding school.
Her aunt, Sister Ignatia, was a member of the order. Ellen
herself attended St. Joseph's College School, where the teachers
impressed her with "their kindness, competence and
dedication." She felt called to join them as a Sister
of St. Joseph of Toronto in 1951, upon finishing high school.
The next step after her novitiate: teacher training.
"When I started to teach, we had large classes.
I had 51 children in Grade One," Ellen remembers.
For the next 14 years of her life, Ellen taught at the elementary
level, serving as school principal during the final four years.
Evenings and summers she pursued university studies. Then
came the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and Ellen's life
The First Big Change
"Vatican II brought a shift in our understanding
of our vocation. I experienced this shift in a dramatic way
in my own life. I exchanged my religious name, Sister Loyola,
for my baptismal name, Ellen. I set aside my habit and veil.
I moved from the big motherhouse to a small community of six
Sisters. I left elementary education for the study of theology."
The Vatican Council had directed the religious communities
to return to their roots. The earliest Sisters of St. Joseph
lived in France in small groups within their neighbourhoods.
And so Ellen lived in a house with five other Sisters: "Living
in community, we pray together. There are the yearly retreats.
We celebrate the great feast days. These are a part of the
rhythm of my life."
Study and Research
In 1969, the study of theology took Ellen to Manhattan College
in New York. She prepared to help Catholic teachers and parents
teach the new programs in religious education.
This work as a resource teacher in Religious Education showed
her the need for renewed theology as well. Her Congregation
supported her entry into the doctoral programme at the University
of St. Michael's College, where she completed her PhD
"I really fell in love with theology," she
says of this time. In 1969 St. Michael's had joined with six
other colleges to form the Toronto
School of Theology. When Ellen began to teach theology
at the University of St. Michael's College, her students included
seminarians, Sisters, lay women and men preparing for a variety
of ministries in the church. Students from the other colleges
added ecumenical flavour.
Sister Mechtilde O'Mara CSJ described Ellen's influence on
others in this way:
"Many of her Sisters, delighted with her presentation
and appreciative of her insights, have followed her courses
in Christology, Sacraments and Religious Life at the University
of St. Michael's College Faculty of Theology. We are proud
of what she has accomplished and even more of who she is."
Ecumenism: bringing the churches together
Her work at the college brought her into contact with other
churches. She attended the World Council of Churches Assembly
in Vancouver in 1983 and in Canberra, Australia in 1991.
"As Sisters of St. Joseph called to the apostolate
of unity, we can rejoice that God is inviting the whole human
family to a greater unity..." she wrote in a message
to the Sisters upon her return from Vancouver.
The Canadian Conference of
Catholic Bishops appointed her as a Catholic participant
in the Roman Catholic-United Church National Dialogue from
1975-1984 and to the Churches' Council for Theological Education
from 1992 to the present.
Feminism: a transforming grace
Her next blessing was feminism.
"I met women from all over the world. Feminism has
been for me, in Anne Carr's words, 'a transforming grace.'
This grace was communicated to me by other women, especially
my students and colleagues. I also experience women-church
among the women with whom I live as a Sister of St. Joseph.
I am committed to affirming the gifts of women in whatever
ways I can, by teaching, writing, and personal contact."
She helped set up the Catholic
Network for Women's Equality (CNWE).
Writing and Teaching
The following years were busy, productive ones. As well
as teaching, Ellen wrote three books on individuals involved
in the modernist movement in the early twentieth century:
George Tyrrell and the Catholic Tradition; Unresting Transformation:
The Theology and Spirituality of Maude Petre; Creative Tension:
The Spiritual Legacy of Friedrich von Hugel. She published
in many magazines including The Month, The Way, The Ecumenist,
Horizons, Grail, and The Canadian Catholic Review.
Retired - and working hard
In 1999, Ellen retired from full-time teaching at the University
of St. Michael's College. As a professor emerita, she still
teaches courses, counsels and mentors students, and writes
for various journals. The year 2002 brought the celebration
of her 50 years with the Sisters
of St. Joseph of Toronto.
Ellen's reflections on this occasion:
"My membership in the Congregation of the Sisters
of St. Joseph during the past 50 years has given me the opportunity
to develop my gifts and to share them with others through
my ministry of theological education. I am grateful for this
rich ministry and for the Sisters with whom I live in community
who continue to inspire me. I love being a Sister of St. Joseph!"
You can email Sister Ellen at firstname.lastname@example.org
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