By Terry O’Neill
Listen to that voice within. Listen to the voice of God calling you.
This is a usual part of the advice given to men and women seeking guidance about a religious vocation.
For many on the path of discernment, it’s difficult to hear that voice – to hear it amid the distracting noise of modern life.
But not for Sister Heather Charest, a novice with the Sisters of the Child Jesus.
“I joke with people about God’s voice being this gentle whisper,” Sister Heather said in an interview. “In my life, it’s a tornado or a hurricane upsetting things. It hasn’t been a gentle beckoning. It’s been the, ‘Hello, are you listening to me?’”
As Sister Heather, a 47-year-old Coquitlam resident and retired urban planner, prepared to profess her first vows with the Sisters of the Child Jesus, she reflected on her long vocational journey – from the time when, as a six-year-old Catechism student in North Vancouver, she first dreamed of becoming a nun, until this past December when, in a case that her doctor told her could only be described as miraculous, emergency surgery saved her life.
“He said to me, ‘You know, in medicine we don’t like to use the word miracle, but sometimes we just don’t have a medical explanation as to how or why,’” Sister Heather said. “Then he said to me, ‘You have some serious guardian angels looking out for you.’”
What she knows for sure is that she experiences God’s presence regularly as she walks with him on her vocational journey. “Those moments are almost every day, at different times,” she said. “It’s being open to see and feel that love, that mercy, and [with] certain people, you feel it.”
Asked to describe what contributed to her decision to join the order, she responded with a bright smile and ready answer.
“Oh my goodness, it’s been a long sort of journey and process,” Sister Heather said. “I fell in love with a Sister of the Child Jesus when I was six years old – my first catechism teacher, Sister Mary Brigid Hayes – and it was love at first sight.”
Sister Brigid “was gentle and loving and a lot of fun in the classroom. She was just a good woman, and you just knew you were special in her company, and you knew that she was special.”
After her first day in class, she said to her parents, “‘I’m going to become a sister and I’m going to Africa and I’m going to teach.’ And 40 years later, you know, I’m heading in that direction.”
It hasn’t exactly been a direct path. “The voice in my head became louder than the voice in my heart,” Sister Heather said. That head voice urged her to live up to her parents’ expectations to get an advanced education and good career.
This led to her earning two master’s degrees, first in heritage conservation and then in urban and rural planning. She built a career in her profession in Ottawa and Nova Scotia, and later took on an educational role at Simon Fraser University.
After breaking up with her boyfriend of 11 years in 2012, she decided she wanted to return to planning and found work with the Archdiocese as its buildings and properties planner. Still unfulfilled, she found herself writing a letter to the Sisters of the Child Jesus, enquiring about becoming an associate of the order – one who shares the order’s mission but does not profess vows.
Later events inspired her to make a deeper commitment.
“I think the turning point for me in terms of my vocation was seeing an advertisement in The B.C. Catholic for Chalice [the Catholic international aid charity] and a mission trip to Haiti,” Sister Heather said. It was 2015 – five years after a devastating earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people and left many more homeless.
She went to Haiti for the Homes for Haiti mission, and said, “that changed my life; that’s when I realized I needed to do more.”
The experience touched her. “It made me question like, ‘What am I doing?’” While she recognized the value of working with the Church through parishes and the archdiocese, she realized “my heart is with those that are poor.”
The decision crystallized when, shortly after returning to her Coquitlam townhouse, she received her property-tax notice. She asked herself what she was doing. “I own my car, I own my townhouse, I’ve got all this education, what’s next?”
She decided to write again to the Sisters of the Child Jesus to begin formation, not as an associate but as a sister.
Founded in France in 1676, the Sisters of the Child Jesus arrived in Canada in 1896 after New Westminster Bishop Paul Durieu invited them to work with First Nations people. The order currently has 88 members throughout the world, but just 16 in Canada. Sister Heather is the 17th and by far the youngest, by some 30 years, in this country.
It isn’t only her age that has made her novitiate unusual. The COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible for her to join other women in formation in the novitiate community in Chile. Instead she remained in Canada, which she described as a blessing in disguise when her journey came to resemble that of her order’s founder.
“Like Anne-Marie Martel, I have been invited to follow the Spirit into newness,” Sister Heather wrote in a post for the Around the Well Catholic blog for “new and younger” religious in Canada. (See aroundthewell.ca)
“For my congregation, it has meant reimagining what the formation of a Sister of the Child Jesus looks like. It has required responding creatively, collaboratively, and faithfully in the face of uncertainty – aging sisters and a mission in Canada described as nearing completion, a.k.a. ‘dying.’ But dying we are not! The Spirit is constantly at work – inspiring.”
Coincidentally, the order, which is incorporated in B.C. as the Sisters of Instruction of the Child Jesus, maintains a convent in the Coquitlam neighbourhood of Maillardville, across the street from Our Lady of Lourdes Church and only a block from Sister Heather’s townhouse.
It was while living at the convent this past December that, amid a COVID outbreak that had sickened all her fellow residents, Sister Heather experienced something worse – severe abdominal pain. She tried to explain it away as a COVID symptom, but the pain soon turned crippling.
She asked Sister Denece Billesberger, the order’s Directress of Novices and one of the sisters formally accompanying Sister Heather on her vocational journey, to take her to Eagle Ridge Hospital. “I said to Denece, ‘I can’t take it anymore. I need to go in.’”
A CT scan revealed a major blockage of her colon. Because her condition was so grave, they couldn’t wait for a formal hospital transfer, so Sister Denece drove her to Royal Columbian Hospital. Medical staff were waiting for them and they rushed Sister Heather into an operating room for emergency surgery.
Doctors found a cancerous tumour that had formed a blockage so severe that the colon would likely have ruptured within a day had it not been for the surgery. Sister Heather is now on a course of chemotherapy, and doctors tell her she can expect a full recovery.
It’s become clear to her that the blockage was another blessing in disguise because the pain it caused meant the stage-two colon cancer was discovered before it became almost uncurable.
That’s the first part of the “miracle,” she said. The second is that her colon didn’t burst and kill her. And the third is that, after a six-month course of chemotherapy medication, she is considered cured.
Rather than derail her desire to serve with the Sisters of the Child Jesus, the health challenge has become a source of strength. Fully prepared to be angry at God, she discovered she wasn’t, “and that was a big surprise.”
“For the first time in my life [my reaction to a setback] wasn’t ‘why me?’” she said. “It was ‘why not me? I can do this.” The experience provided “something in this for me to learn and there’s something maybe I can offer to others.”
While she can’t predict where her vocation will take her, her heart is with the Indigenous members of St. Paul’s Parish in North Vancouver, where Sister Denece currently serves. She also feels drawn to the Talitha Koum Society, which operates two homes in Coquitlam for women recovering from addiction and on whose board Sister Denece serves.
“I may not be a teacher in a classroom the way many of our former sisters, like Sister Brigid was, but I can still teach,” she said.
“If I’m able to share the deepest parts of myself and offer that experience, the good and the bad, if I can live in humility in honesty and walk with another in hope towards wholeness, that’s my vocation. It’s not so much about a particular ministry other than companionship and empowerment.”
Sister Heather will be celebrating the rite of temporary profession as a Sister of the Child Jesus at St. Paul’s on March 25. Sister Denece, who is also the order’s Canadian treasurer, said the period between first and final vows can be anywhere from three to six years.
Sister Heather’s advice to men and women considering a religious vocation is “to be bold and courageous.”
“There’s so much talk about religious life being dead – that it’s not a viable way of life right now,” she said. “I think sometimes we’re too close to situations to realize that God is continuing to dream, and we are all part of that dream.”
Her initial reticence about sharing her story was overcome when she realized the article is “not actually about me, it’s about God’s fidelity and faithfulness and the fact that, in the case of our [aging] congregation … charisms don’t die. Missions come to completion, but a charism is something that is forever out there. And in our current day, if we are listening deeply with the ears of our hearts, we are invited to live it.”