Oldest known American in Canada, at age 105, is Anglican nun

February 5, 2009

Nothing confirms an old-age expert's theories like a long life well lived. On February 2, Sister Constance, a noted gerontologist, celebrated 105 years of such life, surrounded by her fellow sisters at Saint John the Divine convent in Toronto.

Under the flashing cameras of local journalists, U.S. Consul General John Nay presented a birthday certificate to the tiny sister, who sat primly in a wheelchair, wearing her traditional full black habit. She is the oldest known American living in Canada.

A congratulatory letter from President Obama was also on the way. Sister Constance, whose grandfather was a slave, watched Obama's inauguration two weeks ago in quiet admiration.

In 1904, Constance Elizabeth Murphy was born into a prominent African-American family in Baltimore. One grandfather was a well-known caterer and the other the founder and editor of the Afro-American, a black newspaper. Constance studied education at the University of Pennsylvania, taught school in Baltimore, then answered a long-heard call to religious life. Though her family and most of her friends were lukewarm about the idea, she traveled to Toronto and joined the Sisterhood of Saint John the Divine in 1932.

Education was a hallmark of the first half of her ministry. She taught special education in Aurora, Ontario, and served as head of Qu'Appelle Diocesan School in Regina, Saskatchewan.

Gerontology emerged as a later interest. When Sister Constance was appointed to coordinate work with the aging in the Diocese of Toronto, she felt she needed more education. At the age of 73, she earned an MA in adult education with a certificate in gerontology from the University of Michigan.

Her work amongst the elderly is legendary, and some called her "Mother Teresa of the Anglican Church." By one writer's estimation, when Sister Constance was in her 70s, she took care of over 60 elderly people in her parish, often visiting them by bicycle. At 90, she would still zip over to St. Hilda's Towers, a seniors' residence, by subway.

Meanwhile, her professional reputation grew. She helped found the Canadian and Ontario associations on gerontology, served several times as an official Canadian observer at the White House Conference on Aging, taught university courses, received two honorary doctorates, and was in demand as a speaker.

These days Sister Constance spends most of her time in intentional prayer at the convent. Still in good health, she attends most of the convent's regular prayer services as well as community meetings. Friends from her wide network pop in for visits.

Many of these admirers and family were on hand for the birthday celebrations, which included a special Eucharist with blessing of candles, and a luncheon. The Rev. Greg Physick preached on Jesus's presentation at the temple, where he is recognized and welcomed by two faithful elders, Simeon and Anna.

"What's your trick for living so long?" one reporter asked Sister Constance on February 2. She raised her hands and said, "I just say, 'Here I am; send me.'"

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