Every morning more than three dozen elderly sisters gather for mass in a small chapel at St. Joseph's Convent in Biddeford on the edge of the Saco River. The convent doubles as a nursing home, and several of the sisters arrive in wheelchairs or with the help of an attendant. Most are dressed in relaxed, short black veils, black vests and skirts. Those who can, lift their voices in prayer.
For most of these sisters, the mass follows a time of private morning reflection. There will be more prayer later and at least one shared meal. For those who are able, who live in several smaller convents in Biddeford, Saco and South Portland, charitable and other work takes place in between.
In Maine, the sisters still operate several St. Andre homes for new and expecting mothers who have no place to go, an adoption agency, a food pantry and a transitional program for women coming out of prison. They're receiving some funding from the state and the Catholic Church.
But to continue their efforts they will need to bring in some younger sisters, and much of that burden will fall to one woman in particular: "I'm Sister Elaine Lachance and I'm a servant of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, better known as the Good Shepherd Sisters of Quebec. And I'm the vocation director. In other terms, it's like a recruiter."
When Sister Elaine entered the convent in 1959 just out of high school, she says there were 269 Good Shepherd sisters in Maine and Massachusetts. Today there are fewer than 60. And the order itself has seen its numbers dwindle around the world in Canada, Africa, Brazil and Haiti from a peak of more than 2,000 sisters to about 500.
Only 16 women have joined the order around the world in the last five years. At the same time, Sister Elaine says their help is needed as much as it was when the order was established in Quebec in 1850 to help women coming out of prison.
"There are so many women in distress, so many women in prison, so many women coming out of prison that have no place to go, so many children don't have homes. That's why we keep saying, 'We don't know what God's doing but our gift to the world is still needed. Therefore, we need women.'"
Originally, the Good Shepherd Sisters settled in mill towns populated with French-Canadians in search of work--places such as Van Buren, Biddeford and Lewiston, Maine, and Lawrence, Massachusetts. They shared language and culture with the immigrants who welcomed their service.
The sisters tended to those in need, taught in Catholic schools, helped run orphanages and nursing homes. And they still do. Sister Elaine says she was in the 7th grade when she first heard what she says was "God's call."
"That's where the call started to take place in me. But I didn't really want it at first. In fact, I bought a little book, a little pamphlet, which said: 'Please Lord, don't call me! (laughter) And I thought by reading it, it would change. It didn't! So it was like, now I know what it was, but I didn't have words to put on it then. It was the way they communicated God's love and his goodness. The sisters were like mothers. They were just so good and we felt it. And I felt, oh, in me, I have that."
"When I look at my call, I think I admired the women that gave their life totally. And I think I wanted to do the same thing," says Sister Annette Nadeau. At 73, Sister Annette is one of the youngest in the community, and is in charge of maintenance and housekeeping at St. Joseph's. She lives with several other active sisters at a smaller, separate convent in Biddeford.
Sister Annette had hoped to be assigned to do mission work in Haiti but instead found herself assigned to a nursing home in Biddeford. She admits that, at first, she was afraid of sick people and of death. "And I didn't think I could see myself accompanying a person, a dying person, but my whole life and my whole attitude changed at St. Andre Health Care. You got to love these people. You could do so many things with them and for them."
Sister Annette says she was also inspired to get her Class B driver's license so she could drive a bus and take residents on shopping trips, picnics and even to the racetrack at Scarborough Downs. But among the most profound moments, she says, was the time she was called to the bedside of a dying woman.
"She was not a Catholic woman, but everyday she would come with us and say the rosary. So I was called to her room and she said, 'Sister Annette, could you say that prayer with me? She didn't even know it was the Hail Mary. So I prayed with her and it was a privilege, and I was able to be there when she died."
To become a Good Shepherd sister a candidate must take the vows of obedience, chastity and poverty, something that is often misunderstood, since many of the sisters have jobs outside the convent.
"It's not that we are destitute and we couldn't help people if we were destitute," says Sister Elaine. "But it's a vow of dependence on God, and we pool all our resources so that we can do the works that we do. I don't think there's any one of us that would be able to do what we've done or what we are doing alone, but together we shine the best."
The sisters acknowledge that some prospects who are considering a life in the convent might view these commitments as a major sacrifice of personal freedom. But they see it as just the opposite. The vows, they say, give meaning to their lives.
"The reason we enter the convent is for God before helping the needy, because helping the needy--you can do that without entering the convent," says Sister Dorina Chasse of Madawaska.
Sister Dorina is 84 years old. She spent 25 years as a teacher and principle at a girls' boarding school in Lesotho, Africa. In the early years she traveled between missions on horseback. The school began with just eight students who knew little or no English and grew to more than 300 by the time she left.
"It's very consoling to see how these girls are doing now," she says. "Some are nurses. Some are social workers. We have some in all walks of life, really."
Susan Sharon: "Were you strict with the students? Everybody has these images of the sisters being so strict in school and scared of them."
Sister Dorina: "I was very severe because you know those children were living outdoors so they had practically no discipline. If we wanted them to succeed we needed discipline."
Susan Sharon: "How did you carry out the discipline?"
Sister Dorina: "Oh, just by looking at them!" (laughs)
Sister Dorina says she had two aunts who were sisters in another community and an uncle who was a priest. From a young age she knew she would enter religious life and says it's been uniquely rewarding.
"You know, we have no worries. We don't have to worry about the food we eat or the care we have when we're sick or elderly. We have a place to live. We have a bed to sleep in. We really have what is promised us in the Gospel, that we will have the hundred percent. And we do. We do. When I hear all the problems people have, I'm almost ashamed that I don't have any. So, it makes me pray more."
But some of the sisters admit that there are times when they wonder what might have been. "Everytime I see a beautiful baby boy I say, 'Wow, I could have had a beautiful baby, maybe. Who knows?' But I think we all go through that, huh?" says Sister Arlene Gaudette.
At 85, Sister Arlene is a retired teacher who looks 20 years younger. She says she misses her students but has taken up quilting and now has more time for prayer. "I never thought I was going to be a nun, number one. I was the biggest tomboy in my neighborhood. The boys were afraid of me. I don't know who's going to hear that, but it's true, what can I say?"
But like most people who join the sisterhood or the priesthood, Sister Arlene says she was encouraged by a teacher in Catholic School who also happened to be a Good Shepherd sister. "God's been so good to me. I wish I could stand on top of the house and yell it out: 'You guys don't know what you're missing! You gals enter if God's calling you, come, because it's a rich life and I've enjoyed it."
Across the river in a three-story Victorian in Saco the Good Shepherd sisters are making believers out of several women who have found meaning in their message and their work at a place called Esther House.
"My name is Doreen. I'm 51. I've been here eight months now. I met the sisters while I was doing time in Windham." Doreen, who asked that we not use her last name, spent 25 years in prison for causing the death of her 10-month-old son. She and three other women share the house with three of the sisters, look for work, undergo counseling and make the transition from prison to the world with a loving safety net.
"They allow me to be whoever I am in the moment," Doreen says. "They're not afraid of me. They're not intimidated. They're not impressed. They're just available. And what's fascinating about them is no matter what they're doing they stop when anybody in this house needs their help. They just have so much love that there's no way you can feel uncomfortable with that, and I have some serious issues and they have been so supportive."
Sister Joanne Roy, a social worker and substance abuse counselor who lives at Esther House, says the six-year-old program is funded through private donations and some contributions from residents. There are few restrictions. But candidates must stay sober, undergo random drug screenings, adhere to a curfew--and they must be committed to self improvement.
"We've never had, in the history of the world, as many women in jail and prison as we have here in the United States," says Sister Joanne. "The need is there and I guess the calling is there, you know?"
Sister Joanne says she's not worried that fewer women are entering the sisterhood, and that no one has joined the Good Sisters in Maine. "I just think of the scripture passage: a time to build, a time to tear down. It's a time when a lot of institutions, the numbers are going down. Facebook has a lot though! That's different." (laughter)
At Burgess Advertising in Portland, Public Relations Director Pekka Paavonpera and social media specialist Kevin Melega are helping Sister Elaine with a campaign to recruit new members. "Updates - the Facebook, did you get the figures we provided, the number of hits and everything?" asks Paavonpera. "Oh yes, over time," says Sister Elaine.
The strategy includes traditional marketing in religious publications and on television, but also includes advertising on social media, such as YouTube, and getting Sister Elaine to maintain a blog and a Facebook page.
"For the Facebook campaign we ran between mid-September and mid-October we ran five different ads that targeted women between ages 25 to 45 in New England, and the ads generated over two million impressions, 380 click throughs," says Melega.
Paavonpera says attracting interest is challenging, not just because younger women are less interested in becoming nuns but because the Good Shepherd sisters are in competition with other sisters. "If someone decided they want to be a sister or a nun, it's not that they go straight to Good Shepherd," she says. "There are hundreds of orders, so then you have to beat those other orders to get the person to come to them."
"There are some groups that are getting many, many women," says Sister Elaine. She sways that during the 60's, the Vatican asked that sisters modernize their ways, including the traditional habit, but she says younger recruits appear drawn to older ways.
"Newer groups of sisters have adopted the old habit and the older ways that we used to do that are much stricter than now," she says. "They're the ones that seem to be getting the vocations. They're getting the younger women also."
But "younger" in the case of the Good Shepard sisters is a relative term. The youngest sister in the group is 65 years old. And unlike some orders, the Good Shepherd convent will generally no accept any new sisters over the age of 45.
In addition, Sister Elaine says women who have children are discouraged from joining because of the competing demands of being both a sister and a mother. The sisters have help in their recruitment effort from lay volunteers, like Peggy Spino, of Scarborough, who says she always wanted to join a convent.
"But at 15 I met this wonderful young man and I fell in love," she says. "And my mother said 'God gave you a place to do your work for him by not being a sister.' So I feel what I do now with Sister Elaine is what I'm supposed to do. It's our last chance. We're going to do everything we can--because this is it!"
Spino has dubbed the marketing campaign "The Sister Project" but she says she has a very personal stake in its success. Sister Elaine, she points out, taught religion classes to her son, who's now grown up, and has been her own spiritual guide and personal friend.
"I have a granddaughter--I'm not going to cry--she will need a friend. My Angie, I want her to have what I have," Spino says. "That's what drives me. We can't let them become extinct. It's not going to happen."
But so far, the response has been limited. Of the nearly 400 recent click throughs on the Facebook ad, Sister Elaine has had inquiries from just five women, and so far no interviews have been arranged. But she's not giving up.
"God does not want us to die as a group of sisters," Sister Elaine says. "Every time I think, 'Oh, do I want to keep going? Should I keep going?' It's like another door opens."