Interview with the next Reverend Mother of the SSJD

Posted on March 17, 2015
Sister Elizabeth Rolfe-Thomas. Photo by Michael Hudson

Sister Elizabeth Rolfe-Thomas. Photo by Michael Hudson

Sister Elizabeth Rolfe-Thomas will be installed as the next Reverend Mother of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine (SSJD) on May 6 at St. John’s Convent in Toronto.

I am presently the prioress and novice director of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine. As novice director, I have the privilege and joy of nurturing the new members of the Sisterhood, and as prioress I assist Sr. Elizabeth Ann, the current Reverend Mother, in whatever ways are helpful to her.

The Sisterhood of St. John the Divine is a contemporary expression of the religious life for women in the Anglican Church of Canada, living under the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Nurtured by Mother Hannah’s founding vision of prayer, community and ministry, we are called to lives of love, prayer and service, thus witnessing to the power of Christ’s reconciling and forgiving love. We seek to be open and responsive to the needs of the church and the world. We are probably best known for our Guest House ministry of hospitality, leading retreats and quiet days, preaching, and providing spiritual guidance; for our pastoral care ministry at St. John’s Rehab; and for our ministry of prayer and music both in Toronto and Victoria, B.C. Hidden ministries include our library, our beautiful gardens, our infirmary for Sisters with healthcare needs, our outreach ministry, especially in Victoria, and our ministry alongside our associates, oblates and Alongsiders. Currently we have 21 members, three of whom are serving as a praying presence in our house in Victoria.

The Reverend Mother is elected for a five-year term. Her primary role is to encourage each Sister to continual growth in Christian living through her loving concern, pastoral care, nurture and guidance. She challenges each Sister to respond generously and faithfully to God’s will. She shares her vision and inspiration with the Community and helps to facilitate our decision-making processes. She is the main contact with the leadership of the wider church. She helps to foster vocations to the Sisterhood and sets an example of faithfulness to the Rule of Life in the fullness of its spirit.

Over the next few years, I want to focus on the gifts and passions of the Sisters and the Community at this time in our history and decide together where and how they can best be used. What are our core values and where is the church calling us to use them? I also wish to encourage more women to test their vocation in our Community.

I was born and raised in Vancouver. I am a cradle Anglican and attended an independent school that had a strong Anglican ethos, but I was always seeking something deeper, a closer relationship with God. As a child, I used to enjoy reading a children’s book of Bible stories on Sunday evenings. One side of my mother’s family is Quaker and many of my father’s forebears were Anglican clergy, so I feel as if I were born with a strong spiritual gene. One summer while at university I worked in a Sunday School by Post van for the Diocese of Saskatoon, visiting children on isolated farms and teaching Vacation Bible School. In my final year of university, I applied to be a Volunteer in Mission with the Anglican Church of Canada. My great desire was to teach in India, so I was thrilled to be accepted to teach history and English at an elementary school in Amritsar. However, it was very difficult to get a visa at that time. After several months of waiting, I was offered a job teaching at Poole Gakuin Junior College in Osaka, Japan, where I taught English conversation and literature for two years and led the English worship service once a week. This was a pivotal time in my faith journey. When students asked me questions about my faith, I had to respond in very simple English. I couldn’t use the theological language I was accustomed to; this meant I had to understand these concepts in a much deeper way. When I returned to Vancouver, I was accepted at Crofton House School teaching English, Bible literature and religious studies at the high school level. The students’ questions constantly challenged me to discover what I really believed, so I learned far more than they did.

Sister Elizabeth Rolfe-Thomas, second from right, waves with other Sisters at St. John's Convent last summer. Photo by Michael Hudson

Sister Elizabeth Rolfe-Thomas, second from right, waves with other Sisters at St. John’s Convent last summer. Photo by Michael Hudson

While on retreat in Japan in 1969, I had felt called to the Sisterhood, but my parents were against it and I wasn’t strong enough to go against their wishes. Many years later, I married Ben Thomas but in 1992, he was diagnosed with a very aggressive brain tumor and died five months later. I was devastated; our eight years together had been much too short. But life goes on. I became the director of daily administration at Crofton House School. During the summer of 1996, I attended the Women at a Crossroads program at SSJD and again felt the call to the religious life. I was 55 and entered the Community the following April.

I began my life at SSJD in the kitchen making cookies and muffins and then spent the rest of that summer in housekeeping cleaning bathrooms, doing laundry, and ironing. In the fall, I assisted Sr. Helena in the chapel for six months and then worked in the Associate Office with Sr. Beryl. During that time, I led my first retreat (on Julian of Norwich). In May 1999, I was sent to our new branch house near Montreal. This was a rich experience of leading retreats and quiet days, preaching and teaching different forms of meditation. On returning to Toronto, I was asked to be the director of associates (Central Province). In 2003, I became the novitiate director and in 2008 I was asked to be the prioress. Other responsibilities have included publications and spiritual direction. Each year has brought new challenges.

High points in my community life have included discovering Julian of Norwich (Revelation of Divine Love), my two years in Montreal, my Life Profession, being novice director and being asked to serve as chaplain to CoGS (the Council of General Synod). I am deeply saddened every time a member of the Community dies or leaves, especially if they have been in the novitiate during my time as novitiate director.

I believe we do wonderful work in our Guest House ministry, providing a variety of quiet days and retreats for people to attend as well as an oasis of quiet for individuals and parish groups who are looking for silence and time to deepen their relationship with God. We offer pastoral care to all those who come to St. John’s Rehab irrespective of their faith tradition or background. We serve in many ways in the diocese and across Canada and we have just published a book of our history, A Journey Just Begun. It describes the work we have done over the past 130 years and the importance of the religious life in the Anglican Church.

Five years from now, I hope I will be retiring as Reverend Mother and will be able to focus on leading retreats and quiet days and doing spiritual direction.

My favourite passages from scripture are, first, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life . . . nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). This reminds me that nothing whatsoever can separate me or anyone else from God’s love. And Colossians 3:12-17 tells me how we are called to live together in community: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Col 3:12 -17).