by Sr. Patricia Kay OLM, photos by Sr. Rosemary Williamson OLM
On Saturday November 20,2010 at the 34th Convocation of Regis College, Toronto, Sister Elaine MacInnes, O.L.M., O.C. was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Sacred Letters by the Chancellor of Regis College, Very Rev. James F. Webb, S.J.
The citation for her honoris causa was read by Fr. Jack Costello, S.J. In it, he described Sr. Elaine as a ‘world-travelling pilgrim’. He briefly sketched her life starting with her early years in Moncton, N.B. where her home was ‘vibrant and filled with music’. He spoke of her education in music first at Mt. Allison University in Sackville, N.B. then on to more study of the violin at the Julliard School in New York. Later she played violin in both the Calgary and Edmonton Symphonies. By 1953 to the surprise of many of her friends she entered the newly founded community of Our Lady’s Missionaries in Alexandria, ON hoping to find the way to a deeper life in the Spirit as a missionary.
Her first missionary assignment was to Japan. There she founded a Conservatory and Cultural Centre in Osaka but it was her dialogue with Buddhism that led her to the rigorous study and exacting meditation of the practice of Zen. For many years she had the privilege of studying under the guidance of Ramada Roshi, a well-known Zen Master. And by 1980, she was made a Zen Roshi, or master, one of only two Catholics to be given the distinction at that time.
In the meantime, after some years in the Philippines, she was asked on behalf of a tortured prominent political prisoner in the Bago Bantay Prison of Quezon City, just outside Manila to come and teach him meditation. As a result of this practice, he could later write” Through my prison windows I can see oneness pervades the whole universe and I am in my perfect place, moving along the way”.
In 1993, Sr. Elaine moved to Oxford, England to become the Director of the Phoenix Prison Trust and where she became an enthusiastic advocate of Restorative Justice . She began to see prisons as potentially places of healing instead of only punishment and trained volunteers to be teachers of yoga and meditation in more than 85 prisons throughout all of U.K. including the notorious Maze Prison in Ireland.
After 40 years outside Canada, she returned to her own country in hopes of carrying on her work in Canadian prisons. Though here ,more than in any other country, she and her teaching teams have often been greeted with suspicion and resistance. She began a Zendo in Toronto for the teaching and practice of meditation and also founded an apostolic group called Freeing the Human Spirit for the continuation of her work of teaching yoga and meditation to prisoners.
In 1998 Sr. Elaine was granted an honorary degree by Mount Allison University, her alma mater. In 2001 she received the Order of Canada. Then in 2005, she received another honorary degree , this time from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.
Throughout the years, Sr. Elaine has had innumerable interviews in media of all forms. In 2004 a Hilary Pryor film was produced based on her life and work entitled The Fires That Burn . This has been widely shown to appreciative audiences .Sister Elaine’s 6th and latest book The Flowing Bridge is filling a gap for English speaking Zen students in several areas. Her work in Inter-religious dialogue continues to interest and fascinate her. As she experiences the gradual depletion of being in her middle eighties it is enormously relieving to her to know that the work will continue even when she no longer around there to guide it.
Honourary Degree at Regis