Mercy-filled Encounter with the Penobscot People

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By Catherine Walsh, Communication Specialist, Sisters of Mercy Northeast Community

I was filled with anticipation upon arriving at Flowing River Mercy Place, the cozy home of Mercy Sisters Suzanne Lachapelle and Judith Oliver on Indian Island in Maine. This former rectory is filled with Native American art, crafts and images of saints, including Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint. It also serves as the heart of the Immersion Experiences that Sisters Sue and Judy hold for non-native people as a way to combat racism in all its forms, one of the five Critical Concerns of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.

I was new to Mercy – I had just recently joined the communications team of the Sisters of Mercy Northeast Community – and I was eager to learn more about Sisters Sue and Judy’s ministry with the Penobscot Nation. That they were continuing a Mercy presence among the Penobscots that began with Mother Frances Warde, who arrived on Indian Island by canoe in 1878, fascinated me. The Penobscots, who first learned about Christianity from French Jesuits in the 16th century, had welcomed Sister Frances as “a great white Mother” because she had brought sisters to Indian Island. In keeping with the Mercy charism to minister to “the poor, the sick and the uneducated,” these sisters soon established St. Ann’s School, which later became Indian Island School.

Immersion experience

For several days last summer I was part of a group that included some Mercy Sisters, Associates and friends. Conversations with tribal members and spiritual leaders were a key part of our Immersion Experience, as were Catholic and Native American prayers, reflection, service work, Penobscot language and craft classes and a native feast. Our group also went on a boat ride on the Penobscot River with the tribe’s game warden, who shared information about Penobscot efforts to restore the river.

I was struck by the sisters’ warm connection with the native people. Some of us, including myself, stayed with native families – a testament to the friendship and trust between the Sisters and the Penobscots. Patrick and Esther Bear, a couple who hosted me and also led a session of storytelling, singing and drumming, spoke with great feeling about their relationship with the Sisters of Mercy. Esther, a member of Maine’s Passamaquoddy Nation, had been cared for and educated by the Sisters after her mother died and her ailing father placed her in a Mercy school/orphanage. “Although it was devastating for me to be taken out of my culture, the Sisters were wonderful to me,” said Esther one evening as we sat in her dining room. “I felt like I had many mothers with the Sisters of Mercy. Every Mother’s Day I say a prayer for them.”

Listening to needs

As Sisters Sue and Judy shared stories with our Immersion group about their ministry, I was moved by how respectful – even reverent – they were in being a “gentle pastoral presence” among the native people. Upon arriving on Indian Island in 2007, they attended powwows, basketball games, funerals and community celebrations. As the community became comfortable with them, they visited the sick, prepared children for the sacraments and organized events like a Good Friday Stations of the Cross walk around the island. Above all, they listened.

When Sisters Sue and Judy heard about the health issues of many native people, including obesity, they helped revamp the community food pantry with healthier choices and started an organic community garden. And as they heard again and again about the racism the Penobscots encountered from non-native people, they responded in Mercy. They began holding Immersion Experiences in March 2010. “We plan the curriculum with the help of the native people, who serve as the teachers,” said Sister Sue.

Working to eliminate racism

Nearly 30 native people have participated so far in leading the Immersion Experiences. Jim Sappier, a former tribal chief and a church lay leader, led a workshop on Penobscot spirituality at our Immersion. He noted: “Since they came here 135 years ago, the Sisters of Mercy have done so much good for our people. There’s a special connection between tribal members and the Sisters.”

As of winter 2014, more than 320 non-native people of all ages had come to know the Penobscot people and culture as a result of an Immersion Experience. The goal has remained constant, Sister Judy said: “We hope that there will be an internal transformation of participants that leads to external efforts at eliminating racism.”