Love of family is at the heart of Sister Sylvia’s faith and life journey. It led her to God, prompted her to enter religious life and distinguished her 66 years in ministry as a Dominican Sister of Mission San Jose.
Born into a large Louisiana family, Mary Joyce Conant became a second mother to her five brothers – a role she fiercely embraced as a 10-year old girl after her mother’s unexpected death. Her father was left with six young children to raise on his own and Sister Sylvia recalls conversations in the kitchen after her mother’s services. Her relatives were discussing who could provide a home for which child.
“Nobody’s leaving this house!” Mary Joyce interrupted. She knew her father’s siblings had been separated after his own mother’s death and “…they hardly knew each other after that.” Determined to keep her brothers together, Mary Joyce promised, “I may not know how to cook – but I can learn and we’ll be just fine!” Three years after her mother’s death her father remarried and the Conant family grew to include 12 children. They played on the banks of Cane River in Natchitoches Parish with St. Augustine Church the cultural, recreational and religious center of their lives.
California and the Dominican Sisters
After high school, Mary Joyce got a job in Shreveport, working in a doctor’s office with her cousin, who grew restless and wanted to move to California – “But I want to enter the convent. I don’t want to move to California.” Discussions continued and Mary Joyce filled a basket with slips of paper marked Go to California or Don’t go to California. “It seems funny now, but every slip I pulled out read ‘Go to California’ so I thought, this must be where the Lord wants me.”
In California, Sister Sylvia’s cousin Ravena drove her to several Los Angeles Dominican schools where she met and talked to the Sisters. “Ravena also gave me a form to fill out and I asked to join the congregation.” On August 1, 1953, “my oldest brother, cousin and an elderly aunt drove me up to Mission San Jose and I entered the convent.” It’s a decision she has never regretted.
Every Christmas Sister Sylvia was homesick, yet she described her religious superiors as “strict but fair.” Her ministries focused on caring for children without families or stable relationships, serving in Dominican orphanages and resident school programs for more than 20 years. Sister Sylvia looked after boys at the Albertinum, in Ukiah, California, cared for pre-school and 1st grade girls at St. Mary of the Palms in Fremont, California and helped young men find their way in life as students in St. Vincent Home and School for Boys in San Rafael, California.
For six years, Sister Sylvia cared for sisters in the infirmary, finding humor and joy in this ministry. “You know, we were going all day long, assisting with meals, bathing and such. But we got to know the sisters as people. How we laughed and enjoyed each other!”
In 1996, Sister Sylvia returned to serve as Motherhouse sacristan and later superior of the Queen of Peace community. Today Sister Sylvia she is a member of Our Lady of Wisdom community and is grateful to SOAR! for repairing the sidewalks that allow her to safely experience the beauty of the Motherhouse grounds.
After a lifetime of caring for vulnerable children and retired sisters, Sister Sylvia is “grateful for the Sisters’ prayers and kindness over the years.” Family is the gift she gave to her siblings, the Dominican Sisters and generations of children who became her beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.