NEW GLOUCESTER, Maine — Sister Frances Carr, one of the last remaining members of the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village religious community, died Monday at age 89.
Carr was the oldest practicing Shaker in the world. Her death means only two residents remain at the Sabbathday Lake village, the world’s lone remaining active Shaker community.
Carr died Monday afternoon, “surrounded in love, tears and Shaker songs,” Brother Arnold Hadd, 60, said by phone Tuesday morning. “The last thing she attended was Christmas Meeting. We had 25 visitors on Christmas Day.”
Hadd and Sister June Carpenter, 78, are the only remaining members of the Shaker community that was established in 1783. The community encompasses 1,800 acres with 17 buildings, some dating to the 1780s.
Carr came to the Shaker community when she was 10 years old, one of a number of children brought by their mother over several years after their father had died, Hadd said.
“Frances was basically in charge of that family,” Hadd said. “She looked after her [younger] sister. So when she arrived here at the age of 10, her personality was pretty much set. She was a much better leader than a follower. … Let’s just say she was never shy, which was really good for the community.”
“Oh, I was a handful,” Carr told author Monica Wood for a 2014 piece in Down East Magazine.
Of Carr’s 1937 arrival at the community, Wood wrote, “What she remembers most isn’t the heartache of being abandoned, but her first evening meal: a hot dog, which posed quite a quandary for a devout Catholic child forbidden to eat meat on Fridays.”
Wood continues, “‘I didn’t know what to do,’ Sister Frances recalls. ‘Should I eat it? Should I pretend I’m ill?’ Her sister, who loved to eat, gobbled the hot dog without moral reflection. But Sister Frances dug in her heels: She fibbed her way out of that first forbidden food, continued to cross herself in the Catholic fashion, and took an instant dislike to Sister Mary, the children’s caretaker.”
When she moved from the children’s house to the Dwelling House with a new caretaker, Sister Mildred Barker, though, the two “hit it off right away,” according to Hadd, and had “very much the mother-daughter relationship.”
Various accounts characterize Carr as unique and outspoken. In fact, she lectured extensively on all aspects of Shaker life, Hadd said, including cooking, theology and herb production. She later became the dwindling community’s representative, acting as “our goodwill ambassador.”
Over the years, she published several books including her memoir, “Growing Up Shaker,” and a cookbook, “Shaker Your Plate: Of Shaker Cooks and Cooking.”
Ann Lee, a blacksmith’s daughter from Manchester, England, is considered to be the founder of the United Society of Believers in the Second Coming of Christ, which became commonly known as the Shakers. The group took root in the United States in 1774, after fleeing religious persecution in England and in hopes of establishing a utopian society.
Celibacy, pacifism and shared community are all tenets of Shaker life.
The community raises Scottish Highland cattle and a herd of sheep, and grows vegetables and herbs, along with tending a large apple orchard. During the summer, a museum, gift shop and research library are open.
Chris Becksvoort, a New Gloucester furniture maker with expertise in Shaker designs, has spent hundreds of hours in the community — including many Saturday night suppers. He met Carr in the mid 1970s. At the time, she was “the kitchen sister,” he said, and continued as the primary cook for many years.
In the early 1990s, Carr became the senior sister when Barker died.
“She was always smiling and upbeat,” Becksvoort said of Carr. “Totally dedicated to her religion. I remember the apple pies she made. … It’s sad that there are only two of them left now.”
Hadd said he and Carpenter pray every day for new members to be called by God to join their community, but he acknowledges that the fate of the small community “is not in my hands.”
The Shakers remain open to others who may wish to join the sometimes difficult life, and over the years, about three dozen have joined the community — some arriving “with an idea of a romantic life.”
They soon find out, Hadd said, that “if you aren’t called by God, you couldn’t live this life.”
Three weeks ago, Carr suffered what doctors thought was congestive heart failure. Then, two weeks ago, they discovered she had “full-blown cancer.”
Still, Hadd said, “four days ago she was still up and walking.”
Only in the last week had Carr relented to moving to a first-floor bedroom in the Dwelling House — a move that historically has indicated someone is moving to a nursing home or near death.
Hadd recalled a conversation several days before she died, as the two of them walked in the hallway — Carr with the assistance of a walker.
“She turned to me and said, ‘Ah, I know what you’re doing. You’re trying to get me into a nursing home,’” Hadd said Tuesday afternoon, walking down the long hallway between the front door and the meeting room. “I said, ‘Nay, nay sister,’ and she believed me.”
Life in the community, with its volunteers, employees and others, will change, Hadd acknowledged, after the loss of its “dominant personality.”
But energy echoed in the halls of the Dwelling House on Tuesday afternoon, and as employees and volunteers prepared for this weekend’s services for Carr, Hadd said they celebrated her life.
“We don’t really mourn,” he said. “We’re sad — none of us have known life without her. But for us, our goal is not to remain here, it’s to go to God. For her, she’s been released and she’s safe with God. It’s all good.”