BANGOR, Maine — After Kay Davis’ husband, Len, died in 2014, she did what many older widowed women do: She downsized, selling the big house in Orrington where they had lived with their eight children, now all grown and living on their own. She got rid of truckloads of belongings — furniture, books, appliances, bric-a-brac — and kept only the barest essentials. And she moved into a tidy rental house on a quiet side street in Bangor, with just her two cats for company.
But it turns out that Davis, 71, isn’t quite ready to settle down quietly into her golden years. In a couple of months, the former Catholic nun and missionary — who left her order to marry, raise a family and build a career of her own — will leave for a two-year commitment with the Peace Corps in Guatemala.
Established in 1963 during the idealistic days of President John F. Kennedy’s administration, the Peace Corps sends American volunteers to live and work in communities around the world at the grass-roots level to improve health, education, agriculture, economic development and other aspects of daily life and prospects for the future. A college degree is preferred, but life experience and expertise also are highly valued.
The details will fall in place later, but Davis knows her task will be to teach maternal and child health to village women. After a three-month training period, she’ll probably travel to a remote area, far from services such as health care and amenities such as electricity. She will stay with a local family, eat what they eat and live by their customs. Her Spanish is pretty good, but she may need to learn a bit of Mayan to help her navigate.
Is she daunted by these challenges? Of course she is. But any trepidation she may be feeling is overridden by her innate spirit of adventure and her desire to serve the world community.
“I think I have one more adventure left in me,” Davis said during a recent interview in her home. “And I want to do some kind of service.”
Service and adventure
Davis’ commitment to service is deep rooted. Born in Skowhegan, she moved with her family to Bangor when she was 10. Both her parents worked at what was then the Bangor State Hospital (now the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center).
Like many employees in those days, Davis’ family was provided with a small apartment in the big central building of the hospital. The youngest of three children, she spent a lot of time with her parents in the company of people with mental illness. The experience developed in her an early understanding of the power of compassion and a commitment to serving others.
After graduating from high school at 16, Davis enrolled at Farmington Teacher’s College, now the University of Maine at Farmington. But at 18, in 1963, she left school and joined the Maryknoll Sisters, a Dominican order founded in the state of New York in 1912 and dedicated to a mission of overseas service.
“All my friends were getting married, but I wasn’t ready to settle down like that,” she said. “I wanted adventure. I wanted to see the big, wide world.”
With Maryknoll, she got all the adventure she could have asked for, and then some.
‘A girl from Bangor, Maine’
Davis spent three years in training, headquartered at the mission’s home in Ossining, New York. Her field service included working with poor black families in New York City and Paterson, New Jersey, connecting them with housing, health care and other services. She was on hand during the race riots of 1967, when black residents of Paterson, Newark and other communities broke into violent protest against police oppression and lack of economic opportunity.
“This was a girl from Bangor, Maine,” Davis said, recalling her naivete at the time. “I didn’t know anything about that world, and yet it was their daily life.”
In 1968, having completed her training and finished a bachelor’s degree at a private college, she was ready to accept an overseas assignment. She and four other young nuns traveled by freighter from New York City, through the Panama Canal and down the western coast of South America to Santiago, Chile, where Maryknoll maintained a mission center.
Once on the ground, Davis soon found herself working with young mothers in the “campamentos” — poverty-stricken shanty towns surrounding the sprawling capital city. She taught them about health, sanitation and nutrition. She helped them with breastfeeding, child-rearing and resolving problems in their marriages, which were often brutally abusive.
For three years, she worked closely with the poorest residents of Santiago, making many friends in the process. But just beyond her immediate world, revolution was threatening.
“I was there in 1970 when [Salvador] Allende was elected president,” Davis said. “It was clear the U.S. government was going to replace him.”
A Marxist, Allende was perceived as a political threat to the United States. Widespread demonstrations supported by the U.S. ensued, characterized by increasingly violent clashes between protesters and government troops.
Davis returned to the United States in 1971.
“Allende was still in power when I left, but it was getting less and less safe,” she said.
Allende was killed in an attack on his palace in 1973 and replaced by military dictator Augusto Pinochet. Under Pinochet’s brutal rule, tens of thousands of Chileans were tortured, imprisoned and killed.
“A lot of the teenagers I was working with just disappeared because they opposed his government,” Davis said.
She feels certain many of them were murdered.
But Davis didn’t leave Chile because of the growing violence. She left because she had fallen in love.
A mid-course correction
Leonard Davis was a Maryknoll missionary brother, serving in Chile at the same time as Kay Davis. Though he often travelled into the interior of the country and was gone for days or weeks at a time, their paths frequently intersected in Santiago. When their attraction to each other became undeniable, they realized they had to leave Maryknoll.
“It was a terrible dilemma,” Davis said. “But it was clear that if we wanted to have a relationship and get married and raise a family, we would have to leave. … Given the choice, we would have stayed in Chile and kept working with the people we loved. But we didn’t have that choice.”
Len Davis eventually returned to Maryknoll in New York in a civilian managerial role, while Kay Davis completed a master’s degree in social work. Over time, they raised eight children, including five they adopted. When Len Davis was 65 and retired, they decided to move to Maine, sensing the area would be welcoming and supportive of their big, multi-ethnic family. He stayed home to finish raising the youngsters, who were in their teenage years.
In 1988, Kay Davis opened the Bangor office of Maine Adoption Placement Services, or MAPS, and ran it until 1993. Then she worked as a field supervisor for social work students as they completed their clinical experiences. In 1999, she opened a private counseling practice in Bangor, with a specialty of working with children and adolescents. She continues to work full time but is preparing to close her practice before leaving for Guatemala.
There and back again
“I’m not recovered from missing him,” Davis said.
But not long after her husband’s death, the idea of joining the Peace Corps “popped into my head” and wouldn’t leave. When she finally picked up the phone last February and inquired, Davis was told she was certainly eligible to serve, assuming she passed a comprehensive medical exam.
According to the Peace Corps website, the average age of volunteers is 28. But of the approximately 7,000 volunteers serving in countries all over the world, 7 percent, or almost 500, are over age 50.
The oldest volunteer, said spokeswoman Emily Webb, is 87.
“There is definitely no maximum age limit,” Webb said. “Age is a large consideration when you are going overseas. People may need to be a bit more careful. But the safety and security of all our volunteers, regardless of age, is always our top priority.”
It is never too late, she said, to contribute one’s experience, expertise and passion to the global community.
It has taken much of the past year for Davis to complete the application and approval process. A comprehensive medical exam turned up a few problems, including sleep apnea, cataracts and some extra weight, that she has had to address.
“I still need to get some dental work done,” she said. “They leave no stone unturned.”
Just last week, she had her first online meetup with a group of about a dozen other new recruits who, like her, are headed to Guatemala City in February. Unlike her, she said, they all are much younger.
“I’m no longer 25; I’m 71. But the Peace Corps thinks I have a role to play and something to contribute,” she said, and that’s the only vote of confidence she needs.
The Peace Corps will cover all her travel expenses and pay her a modest living stipend. At the end of her two-year service, she’ll be issued about $8,000 for “transition expenses” as she re-enters her life back in Maine. That re-entry may be a bit bumpy, she acknowledged, as she will have given up her little rental house and put all her belongings in storage. Her two handsome, indoor rescue cats, Heidi and Brady, will be in a new home — she’s still looking for the right placement.
“When I come back, I’ll be 73 and homeless,” she said cheerfully. “I do have children in the area who will take care of me until I can put down roots again.”
Davis, who remains active in her Catholic faith, is guided in life by the teachings in the New Testament book of Matthew.
“Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless and visit those who are in prison. That’s the kind of social justice I grew up with,” she said. “That’s why I went to Maryknoll, and it’s why I’m joining the Peace Corps now.”