Aunt, nun, financial whiz. Born on Feb. 21, 1932, in Winnipeg; died on May 13, 2016, in Halifax, of natural causes, aged 84.
My earliest memory of my aunt, Sister Shelagh, goes back to the late 1960s; she, wearing the full black habit of a Catholic nun, carrying me in her arms on a Vancouver beach. In later years, she had dinner with our family every Sunday night. The conversation was always about politics. Her vow of poverty meant that our Christmas gifts from her were modest. Yet that newspaper-wrapped, one-pound Toblerone bar was always appreciated.
She grew up in Winnipeg, where she was educated in part in a convent school and where she taught school for a few years before entering the novitiate of the Society of the Sacred Heart in Albany, N.Y., in 1961. She and other young nuns underwent aptitude testing and it was concluded that she had a knack for numbers. While others were sent off to study education, she earned her B.A. from Newton College in Massachusetts and then was dispatched to the University of British Columbia for a master's degree in business administration. In 1969, she became the first nun in Canada to earn an MBA.
For 39 years, she served as treasurer of the Canadian Province of the Society of the Sacred Heart, based in Montreal. As she examined the books, she realized that the sisters had an actuarial problem. With many members in advanced years and fewer entering the novitiate, she formed an investment committee of the best pension and asset managers she could assemble to ensure the order generated enough income to care for the older sisters. She also fashioned herself as somewhat of a stock-picking shark. When a benefactor donated shares of Nortel at $40, she rode them up to $120 and dumped them just before the shares plummeted. In that case, the proceeds were used to build a school for young girls in Uganda.
The Sacred Heart order operates in some 40 countries, and she travelled from Africa to Asia and throughout the Americas to share her financial administration skills with other Sacred Heart treasurers. She was also a generous mentor to many treasurers of other religious orders in Canada and was a founder of the Association of Treasurers of Religious Institutes.
An anglophone from the Prairies, she embraced life in Montreal with vigour. When my family moved to Montreal in the mid-1970s, she showed us her adopted home with great pride. No longer sporting the habit, she and other sisters were now wearing plaid pantsuits bought at second-hand stores. She loved Montreal, the food (especially Schwartz's deli), the outdoor markets, the French language and culture. Above all, she loved the Montreal Canadiens. While she had met a pope or two, perhaps her biggest thrill was meeting legendary Habs captain Jean Beliveau.
She and her companion sisters lived in modest digs above a succession of retail businesses on Sherbrooke Street. When they wanted a chapel, armed with only a staple gun and a few yards of burlap, they converted a room into a tent-like house of worship. She loved to drive and would often take the other sisters for drives to the Laurentians or Eastern Townships.
In her advanced years, she went to her order's retirement community in Halifax, somewhat reluctantly. There, she continued to read The Globe and Mail from cover-to-cover, always starting with Report on Business first. Sister Shelagh lived her life with purpose. She was a thoroughly modern woman, devoted to her religious order, her family and the broader community.
Paul Deegan is Sister Shelagh's nephew.