Sister Josephine: A lifetime of service

As a young woman in the early 1960s, she was fresh out of high school, with a new job and a dream of becoming a teacher.

She had not thought about becoming a Sister when her pastor brought it up. “No, I’m not really interested,” she said to him. “End of story and he just continued on his way.”

But that conversation stayed with her the whole year, and the idea of becoming a Sister “kept nattering at me.” A year later, at 19, she decided to make application to the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Martha, whom she had met through a relative of one of the Sisters.

Now, many years later, and still a Sister of St. Martha, she has been in pastoral care for almost nine years at St. Therese Villa, a Covenant Health supportive living facility in Lethbridge with 224 residents. She is the last Sister employed by Covenant Health. She is retiring and will soon be heading east to live with the rest of her community of Sisters.

“It’s not going to be a full retirement because there is always something to do. I will be part of the team that will attend to the needs of the Sisters,” she says.

Sister Josephine Keyzer of the Sisters of St. Martha is the last Covenant Health employee from the congregation.

Josephine Keyzer was the third oldest of eight siblings when her family arrived on Pier 21 in Nova Scotia in 1951 as new immigrants from the Netherlands. Speaking nary a word of English, they learned to adjust to life in Canada by settling in Niagara Falls, Ont. Her dad supported the family by working on a farm owned by the Carmelite Brothers. While living there, they also welcomed a Canadian-born baby brother (the ninth child).

The Keyzer siblings became friends with the Carmelite Brothers who came out to the farm daily to work. One Brother had an aunt who was a Sister of St. Martha living in a community in Toronto. Once in a while he would take a trip to Toronto to see her, and some of the Keyzer kids were invited along.

Years later, Sister Josephine realized there was something about the life of the Sisters of St. Martha that seemed to draw her to them.

“These Sisters were involved in many kinds of service such as teaching, parish work and hospital ministry,” she says. “I knew I felt at home with them. Later, I would interpret this as God’s Spirit drawing me there.”

She pronounced her vows—poverty, celibacy and obedience—in 1967 after completing her formation. Later, she went on to obtain a bachelor of arts degree at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan and then a teaching degree at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia in 1975. In 2000, she obtained her master's in theology and spirituality at the University of Toronto. This was followed by a residency year at Sunnybrook Hospital for her pastoral care certification.

In her current role as a chaplain, Sister Josephine feels grateful to know she was able to “meet the many and varied needs of people through pastoral ministry.”

“There have been many moments in pastoral care when I know I made a difference in the lives of the elderly and their family. One really comes to know people so personally; their stories filled with rich life experiences, their joys and sorrows, their rewards and challenges … no different from any of us. For me, I have received much from the many whose lives I was welcomed into and remain grateful,” says Sister Josephine.

For 20-plus years, Sister Josephine served as a teacher in parish-based Catholic schools in Nova Scotia. She taught for four years in Eskasoni, a First Nations elementary school in Cape Breton. As well, she was principal for five years at an elementary school in Kamloops, B.C. Her last teaching assignment took her to Fort McMurray. After retiring from teaching, she spent a sabbatical year in Israel.

“My teaching experience, with its many rewards and challenges, I can only recall with much gratitude. With the younger children, each day is new and exciting with much that is expected! The delight came at the end of the school year, with the joy that comes when the five-year-olds can themselves read a story to the class,” says Sister Josephine.

Currently, Sister Josephine lives with two other Sisters of St. Martha, Sister Theresa Parker and Sister Josie Maclellan. They will leave Alberta in July, returning to Nova Scotia either to their motherhouse in Antigonish or to one of their communities in Cape Breton. A total of 87 Sisters of St. Martha are left and they are all residing in Nova Scotia.

Ralph Magnus, Director of Mission and Spirituality at Covenant Health, says Sister Josephine has done a lot of work with the residents, their families and staff at St. Therese Villa, as well the Lethbridge community. “Whether it’s planning for spiritual care, arranging for a memorial service or helping someone deal with grief, she has been there for them.”

Ralph says her very presence alone as a chaplain at St. Therese Villa is a ministry in and of itself. “She will be missed greatly.”

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