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Allison Grande is no longer religious, but she remains fascinated by the selfless, quiet virtue of nuns

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Saturday, April 20, 2019 – Page O5

Allison Grande is a producer, integrated project manager, writer and editor of special interest features for Maclean's magazine.

The nuns at Our Lady of Mercy could be ruthless.

I vividly remember the day Sister Kateri decided to announce each student's IQ score to our Grade 5 class. Without warning. And while mine ranked second highest, I cringed when I was called up to the blackboard afterward to solve a math problem in what seemed, to my nine-year-old mind, an attempt to say: "See, this is what those with a higher IQ can do!"

Ugh. I shrank back into my seat, embarrassed by my participation in an exercise to make my classmates feel less-than.

Our Lady of Mercy was a convent school in Orchard Park, N.Y., meaning it housed both the school and the convent. To the right of the statue of Mother Mary was the school; to the left, the convent.

I often sneaked around the convent side, peering into the empty rooms amid the deafening silence coming from that side.

What did the nuns do here? Most rooms had coffee tables surrounded by wooden chairs and small sofas upholstered in drab brown fabric. The religious art and crucifixes that adorned the walls bordered on the macabre. I wondered what kinds of conversations happened there. Did they talk about normal stuff or did they just pray? Did they ever play cards, listen to music, laugh? But, realizing that my extended washroom break might get me into trouble, I'd scurry back to my classroom to face the next dreaded task pressed upon me to perform.

Whether or not Sister Kateri had anything to do with my eventual abandonment of Catholicism or any other religion is unclear to me. But by the time I was 10 years old, I confronted my father with a firm belief that people only believe in God because they fear death. I asked him to end the torture of my elementary Catholic school education in favour of application to the private school of my choice in the city.

My father obliged, although I don't think he had much choice. I switched schools, discovered Freud and enjoyed some concrete validation of my 10-year-old insight.

I came to Toronto to study psychoanalysis. A staunch Freudian at the ripe age of 17, I was adamant that any belief in God could only be explained in terms of humanity's need for something beyond this life to hang our hopes on. This life couldn't be it. That would be too devastating to swallow. Moreover, by assigning to God all of our greatest attributes, the "believers" seemed to be saying, "Hey, someone got it right, even if we didn't." And He forgives us. And even better, if we're not too bad, we might get a special place up there, beside Him. (Notice I'm using capitals, just in case.)

But despite all my precocious cynicism, critical thinking and studies, I remain fascinated by nuns.

My mother's family were devout Catholics. My grandmother would routinely entertain priests for dinner at my grandparents' house, with her usual spread of Italian-American delicacies: pasta in a homemade tomato sauce, rolled-meat bruscoli, sausages, stuffed peppers, fresh bread from the local Italian bakery. The wine, poured from bottles in straw casks, would flow liberally with the conversation.

I was so impressed by my grandmother's allegiance to these priests that I actually wondered if she might be having an affair with one or more of them. Or at least fantasizing about it. When I was in Grade 10, I wrote a short story about her relationship to these priests (which, I should say, won me top prize in the short story contest at my school).

I saw up close how the priests got all the acclaim. They were wined and dined by parishioners, such as my grandparents, on a weekly basis. They had cars, money, invitations to events, tickets to the opera, vacation plans.

Yet nuns seemed entirely absent from parishioners' appreciation - or anyone else's appreciation, for that matter. They vowed a life of poverty, chastity and obedience, yet they worked hard, in hospitals, schools, orphanages and missions.

Some historians, such as Heidi MacDonald, dean of arts at the University of New Brunswick at St.

John, claim that 40 per cent of our Catholic schools and hospitals were built on the backs of nuns between the late 19th and 20th centuries. But that contribution to the Canadian work force and economy has been deeply undervalued over the past century and a half in large part because Census Canada never accurately accounted for their work in their enumerations.

Nuns can be found in both Christian and Buddhist religions, but the vast majority in Canada have been Roman Catholic and affiliated with the schools and hospitals that served about 40 per cent of the population who identified with that denomination between 1871 and 1961, as noted by Dr. MacDonald.

The Ursulines were the first order of nuns to arrive in Canada in 1639, led by Marie de l'Incarnation. They established a convent in Quebec and started the first school for girls in North America.

Their students were Indigenous and French girls. The Ursulines eventually spread their work West and as far south as New Orleans. I was lucky enough to visit the historic complex in the French Quarter, which was a former site of the Ursuline Academy and now stands as a museum to commemorate their work not only in establishing the first Catholic school for girls in the United States in 1727, but in running an infirmary for the orphanage also housed within their convent. The current building that houses the Ursuline Academy is a few blocks up the street from the Old Ursuline Convent Museum and remains the oldest school for girls in the United States.

I ended up a producer in film. A few years ago, I pitched an idea about nuns to a major Canadian broadcaster. I had interviewed three nuns for this pitch, all of whom had fascinating stories about why they had chosen to enter the convent.

It seemed unfathomable to me that, despite the depravity in the world today, anyone could still see it fit to grant humanity that kind of devotion, and so I asked them the same question: "Where do you find such faith in humanity in this day and age?" One said she felt a calling while acting in a production of the Dan Goggin musical Nunsense. And she needed to pursue that calling.

Another intimated that, no matter the state of the world, there must be some who have faith both in humanity's promise and in the effort to help those in need around the world. She turned down a marriage proposal in a three-year relationship in favour of a marriage to God and servicing those in need.

But who does this any more?

Well, it turns out that, despite a steady decline in the number of women joining the religious life between 1965 and about a decade ago, some orders are seeing a rise in women choosing the conventual life.

Over the past year, I've witnessed a group of nuns, on several occasions, enjoying the beach in my Toronto neighbourhood. The first time I observed them, they were running along the sand, their habits fluttering in the wind, giggling like schoolgirls under the setting sun.

This image of them was so bracing that I stopped to watch them for a few minutes, while trying to be discreet about my spying. They appeared otherworldly: beacons of peace and days long gone by.

They were the very essence of hope - in humanity. That they still existed in this world was anachronistic and marvellous all at the same time.

After a little digging, I figured out that the order of nuns I keep seeing on the beach are the Sisters of Life, a very traditional order of nuns that chooses to wear full habit all of the time. The Sisters of Life are one such order that is seeing rising numbers of women joining. Their order more than doubled in size between 2006 and 2016. And there seems to be a trend with orthodox orders gaining momentum in increasing size.

The Dominican Sisters of Mercy, a conservative order based in Ann Arbor, Mich., has recently expanded to Austin, Tex. Founded in 1997, they now have more than 120 sisters whose average age is 30.

Yet, despite the growth and contributions they've made to teaching, hospital work, institutionalized social work and missionary work for the past four centuries or so, nuns continue to play second fiddle to priests. Not only are they not allowed to be paid directly for their services - their paychecks go to the congregation - but they live in poverty, unlike the priests, who enjoy many accoutrements of life.

Nuns tend to stay out of trouble, too. And I would venture to say that anyone who still believes in the sanctity of the Catholic Church might as well credit the nuns for their faith. Some priests sure let everyone down.

In pondering anyone's motivation to join the religious life and to remain devoted both to God and to those in need, despite the dire state of the world and its increasing secularization, it occurs to me that there is something to be said for sheltering oneself from the drudgery of daily news. We are bombarded by evidence of a declining culture obsessed with empty celebrity and the pursuit of materialism, poisoned by political partisanship, marked by abuses of our most valued institutions - our courts, our legislatures, the very foundations of our democracy. Turning on the news on any given day is demoralizing, infuriating and just plain depressing.

The nuns sure seem to have it right. Turn off the news. Focus on the contemplative life, a life full of meaning, goodwill and service.

Live actively, not reactively. Focus not so much on why there is so much turmoil and suffering in the world but, rather, on how you can make it better. How you can contribute to the healing, whether locally or abroad. Nuns don't concern themselves with trivialities - they're much more concerned with who is in need today, and how they can serve.

Perhaps if we all adopted this kind of single-mindedness and disregard for who is to blame, we'd all get along better. The nonsense of the world would be replaced by nun's sense. And I'm guessing we'd all be a lot better off.

And while I know very well that this utopian dream is never going to happen, it begs both consideration and considerable appreciation of their service. Not that they expect any thanks. The charitable work that nuns contribute is selfless, pure and not expectant of any reward - the very essence of virtue.

So my hope is that the next time you cross paths with a nun - on the street, in a grocery store, on the beach - you will stop to appreciate that you have been blessed.

Not only by crossing paths with her, but by her presence in your world.

large. They treat a city district as if it were merely a bigger building, an abstract code of angles and intersections, rather than as an organic place that must be allowed to evolve into its optimal form.

Pudong is fixable, however, if only because the massive densities involved are generating enough human activity to take over even poorly designed spaces.

A program of de-engineering is under way to reduce the amount of space devoted to automobiles.

In the centre, at Lujiazui, the city has given up on the street level entirely and created a huge, circular, above-grade walkway accessible by escalator and connecting to all surrounding buildings. It breaks every rule of contemporary city planning and is a great success, full of liveliness and an endless selfie opportunity.

My guide tells me of the difficulties for young aspiring professionals who live in Shanghai, which sound much the same as those in every successful city.

While office rents have been flat over the past decade, housing costs have increased three to four times. Residential property prices have exploded, forcing choices between desired but cramped city-centre living and or a long commute from way out in the family-friendly suburbs. One bright note is that since the private sector replaced the state as the main housing supplier, units are becoming more numerous and more spacious.

I take a long subway ride out to the suburbs, to the end of the line, intending to see the lovely lakeside city of Hangzhou, location of the 2016 Group of 20 summit. You get to Hangzhou from the railway station at Hongqiao, which is also the terminus of the high-speed rail to Beijing, a multilayered rail, bus and air terminal building of a scale and ambition quite unmatched by anything in Europe or North America. I was intimidated by this vast windowless building, the swirling crowds, the insignificance of my Canadian-ness despite my height and bulk. I got lost down on the lowest level and, feeling as if I was underwater, drowning and desperate for contact with the outdoors, any outdoors, I swam up a series of limitless escalators to catch a glimpse of sunshine on the next level. And up again to rush out through the first available door onto a dimensionless outdoor plaza.

I had walked through the looking glass into the future. The plaza formed the terminus of a huge, new city being built around the HSR terminal and airport. It had been invisible from inside but now stretched as far as I could see.

A perfect city of neat tree-lined boulevards, bike lanes, well-designed office complexes and street-animating shopping centres. All completely empty, with the surreal feel of The Truman Show or one of Jacques Tati's futurist urbanscapes.

I cannot fathom the development economics of this fully finished but barely occupied new city centre. Certainly no other world city or development company could afford it. I was continually being counselled by Westerners about an impending debt crisis set to engulf China at all levels: government, corporate and personal. There is no shortage of evidence on the ground and Hongqiao would have to be a leading example of massive public and private investment requiring an extremely long horizon for any reasonable return. But outsiders lecturing China on indebtedness is a bit rich. Leaving aside the glaring overbuild of Versace and Prada outlets, most of what I was looking at around Hongqiao was solid, growth-positive infrastructure investment of a kind that the West, despite its own mountains of debt, has neglected. Rail terminals, airports, office buildings and bus stations are useful, productive elements of the urban machine which, though rattling empty now, will doubtless be filled in a decade or less given the city's current rate of growth. What we are seeing in China bears many similarities to the successive railroad booms and busts that characterized the settlement of the United States. And Hongqiao? It will soon be a lovely place, enjoyed by many people, I am sure, once it is finished.

I am convinced that Shanghai is destined for global supremacy.

Three connected reasons: its muscular city-building strategy, its colossal scale and the entrepreneurial energy of its citizens.

I have talked about the effectiveness of Shanghai's city's planning. What is just as significant is its newness. Other great cities are still heavily reliant upon the infrastructure of their periods of peak development, the great Victorian city-building legacy of European cities and the Eisenhower-era interstate highway developments of North America.

That essential urban equipment, built by each generation's incarnation of Baron Haussmann or Robert Moses, is getting old, and cities are often unable or unwilling to modernize it. Beyond the physical infrastructure, the citymanagement skills of too many European and North American cities have congealed almost to the point of dysfunction. Shanghai's municipal machine is more productive than its competitors and clearly demonstrates good government, whether in the form of impeccably clean streets, or the clever public land leases that provide revenue to fund infrastructure projects and social housing. Shanghai has both the economic power and the basic infrastructure to provide a good quality of life for the populations streaming into the city. It is all very top down, controlled and planned. Prototypical Jane Jacobs stories of small businesses and property owners being chased out by big money and big government abound. But it is hard to see how else the mistakes of every other city in the rapidly urbanizing world could have been avoided. There does however seem to be an inexorable unfolding logic to city building. I met the impressive Xia Liping, head of the Shanghai Planning Institute, responsible for all of the city's long-range planning, who indicated that she felt the process of planning had now to move towards greater public engagement and a more local focus. She's right, of course, but living as I do in a city where no planning thought can be uttered without a public meeting, I wondered whether to warn her.

There is no question that it will take them longer to build their future subway lines.

What ultimately determines the success of cities is immigration. In China's case, that migration has been internal, from the countryside to the cities. The government has actively managed the process with its hukou residency permit system but, like all such attempts to curb the flow of the rural poor to available urban jobs, it has been only partly effective. About half the population of the city still lacks this long-term residency permit.

Indeed, it is on the backs of something resembling the quasi-illegal immigrant class that I met in New York's Bronx and London's Barking that Shanghai's great subway investments and high-rise towers have been built. Of course, it is on their urban energy, their striving, their determination to improve their life and that of their families, that all great cities are built and their futures made. Shanghai simply has more of that energy than anywhere else.

As it grows, Shanghai will have to attract not only China's but the world's best. There is no doubt that it can produce its own creative class. Shanghaiers have an easy familiarity with technology. The city has the highest use of cashless payments of any in the world, and just down the regional rail in Hangzhou is the world headquarters of Alibaba, the huge online retailer that is probably the only rival in the world to Amazon. China, with Shanghai at its centre, is positioning itself as the primary producer of high-tech batteries and robots, surely the key manufacturing activities of the rest of the century. Can the city attract others from afar, that floating global intelligentsia and business class seemingly essential for a higher-order city? Probably not yet. Shanghai's leading university, Fudan, ranks 155th in the league tables. The city's cultural offering looks thin and derivative. On the street, Shanghainese are strivers, not flaneurs. But this, too, will change. This old city is still very young. It is steadily emerging as China's premier cultural centre, with a lightness of being that Beijing finds hard to muster. Museums and galleries are popping up all over, particularly in the new hip district of the West Bund, several of them funded by the great private wealth the city has created, following the pattern of the Tates, Guggenheims and Fricks in turnof-the-century English and American cities. Recognizing the economic importance of the creative class, the city has supported it with tax concessions and other inducements under the fine banner of "Culture First, Industry Oriented." We should also remember that in the thirties, Shanghai did have a distinctive international glamour as an "anything goes, end-of-empire" city. I am not sure this is what the authors of socialist modernization have in mind, but nothing is so permanent as urban character.

The sheer scale of China and its premier cities will exert a force of global economic gravity.

In a short time, the country has lifted more people out of poverty than any other country in the history of the world, employing its particular brand of illiberal capitalism, and its great, exploding cities are a consequence of this magnificent project. The success or failure of the country's next great transformation, from cheap production to sophisticated service and manufacturing economy, will take place in the cities. Will a perhaps inevitable urban democracy grow? There seems some evidence already. Hints of Jane Jacobs sprout like grass between the paving stones of the overwhelmingly Moses-built city. Big cities have always to broaden their power base, particularly in the contemporary economy. Perhaps Shanghai has another advantage in China unique to great commercial cities: an ability to experiment and take risks, giving a flexibility unavailable to the other Chinese megalopolises. It is not the capital, Beijing, where an excess of government power seems to have constrained its urbanity. It is not Hong Kong, whose ambiguous governmental status and business culture could limit its influence. And it is not Shenzhen or another of the instant cities that have developed in China in the past three decades. A city with a dynamic trading culture and a long sense of itself, it will make its own history. There is a fine Chinese proverb of which Shanghaiers are fond: "The mountains are high and the emperor lives far away." Cities may be more powerful than countries.

Associated Graphic

A trio of Sisters of St. Martha skip rope at Scarborough Bluffs Park in in March, 1966.


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