The first Sister of Mercy to visit Indian Island came up the Penobscot River in a canoe in 1858.
The Indians greeted her warmly and called her the “Great White Mother.” After that, the nuns had a presence on the island for nearly 150 years. They taught in the school and lived in the convent next to the church.
Sister Elizabeth Desjardins was the last Maine native Sister of Mercy to teach and live on Indian Island. She died in September 2005 at the age of 60 just months after the last priest to live in the St. Ann Catholic Church rectory was transferred to Pittsfield.
A little more than two years ago, the Sisters of Mercy quietly returned to Indian Island.
They did not come to teach but simply to be “a gentle pastoral presence,” according to Sister Judy Oliver, 66. She and Sister Sue LaChappelle, 65, slowly have joined the Penobscot community since moving into the rectory in September 2007.
Much of their work has been with the Indian Women’s Mission Center, which operates the island’s only food cupboard, temporarily located in the nuns’ home.
On Tuesday, they welcomed a dozen eighth-graders from All Saints Catholic School in Bangor. The students arrived with nearly $1,500 worth of food to stock the pantry and make Christmas food baskets for 24 families on Indian Island and in the surrounding communities.
“I feel really good that I can help someone else less fortunate than me,” said Kiana Yardley, 14, of Bangor. “Helping our community and those in need is what Christmas is all about.”
The students have worked on a service project in December for the past five years, eighth-grade teacher Melanie Walden said. This is the first year the students have worked with the Indian Women’s Mission Center.
“The Sisters of Mercy worked as ed techs at our school last year,” Walden said. “This has been a great way to reconnect with them.”
The students raised much of the money by sponsoring a recent Friday night Drop and Shop, she said. Parents dropped their children off for the eighth-graders to baby-sit while they went shopping or to dinner or relaxed. Parents made a cash donation to the project. The eighth-grade class also raffled off a Thanksgiving turkey basket and donated to the service project the proceeds from a dance that normally would have gone toward a class trip, Walden said.
Rose Scribner, director of the Indian Women’s Mission Center, praised the students’ efforts late Tuesday, after the food baskets had been picked up or delivered.
“They did a wonderful job,” she said, “especially in the way they decorated the bags. When someone is down, just that little bit of color from a red bow on a bag can lift their spirits.”
Sisters Judy and Sue, both natives of Rhode Island, did not come to Indian Island with the intention of running a food pantry. But their back porch turned out to be a good place for storage and fit in with the work they have been doing on the island to promote healthy eating, especially by those who have diabetes.
The women joined their order right after they graduated from high schools, where Sisters of Mercy were their teachers. Sisters Judy and Sue both said Tuesday that they were drawn to the “joyfulness” exuded by the nuns they knew as children. What drew them to Maine was their deep desire to continue their order’s long history with the Penobscots.
The Sisters of Mercy was founded in 1831 in Dublin by Catherine McAuley. The order is dedicated to the poor, sick and ignorant. The noncloistered members, who took care of needs outside the convent, were nicknamed “the walking sisters.”
Members of the order came to the United States in 1843. Sister Frances Warde and seven companions traveled to Pittsburgh. By the end of the Civil War, in which they nursed wounded soldiers on both sides, the order had spread throughout the United States.
“Sister Frances herself came up the Penobscot River in a canoe in 1858,” Sister Judy said. “They called her the ‘Great White Mother.’ When we heard the last sister here had died quite suddenly, we investigated the possibility of coming here.”
The women first visited on March 27, 2007, she said. There just happened to be a funeral Mass at the church that day, so they attended and spoke with people who attended. It was an unusual stained-glass window in St. Ann Catholic Church that convinced Sister Judy that they should stay.
“They have a stained-glass window of Sister Frances Warde, and it is very rare to a have a window of a woman who is not a saint,” she said. “I saw that and knew that we had to follow in her footsteps.”
Religious life has changed dramatically since Sisters Judy and Sue become nuns more than 40 years ago.
“The predominant [thing] that people ask about is, “Where’s your habit?”’ Sister Judy said. “We’ve been out of it since the ’60s. Now our symbol really is the Sisters of Mercy cross we all wear. Now we tend to live in smaller communities of two or three or four. We are an aging community and we are working longer.”
The average age of a Sister of Mercy is 73, according to an Associated Press story published in February.
Much of the nuns’ work on the island has been funded by grants from the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas in Silver Spring, Md. The institute is an umbrella group for approximately 4,000 sisters in the Americas, the Caribbean, Guam and the Philippines. That’s down from 5,500 a decade ago.
Their first grant was to establish a presence on the island. The next to help coordinate nutrition programs. Next summer, they will use grant money to establish a community garden and help island women grow their own food. The nuns also teach religious education classes and help children prepare for their first Communions and confirmations.
“I’ve always been attracted to creation spirituality,” Sister Sue said of why she likes living on Indian Island, “but I also want to continue the long line of Sisters of Mercy here.
“When we came here,” she said, “we couldn’t turn away from the peacefulness and the beauty of the island or the people we met that first day.”
That might be the same thing Sister Frances said from her canoe.