The woman who showed up at the door of the big, white farmhouse near Casco four years ago wanted to turn her life around, and so, the Dominican sisters of the Community of the Resurrection welcomed her in – as they have many women since 1991.
In just a few days, though, the woman had returned to her boyfriend and the abusive relationship she’d hoped to leave behind. Before she left, Sister Renata Camenzind assured her she was always welcome back if she changed her mind and that her name would remain on their prayer board until she did.
Two years later, in 2009, the woman called Sister Renata, saying this time, her boyfriend had tried to kill her. The community welcomed her back, stipulating that she attend AA meetings and make herself useful around the farm. She also could participate in daily prayers in the chapel if she wished. The woman stayed for 14 months.
“She changed her life totally,” recalls Sister Renata, the founder of the Community of the Resurrection. “Change has to come from within.”
For the past 22 years, such patience and faith in God’s plan have been the hallmarks of the Community of the Resurrection. The five religious sisters who make up the community live a semi-contemplative life of daily Mass, periods of silence, and several hours of prayer and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Their spiritual pursuits are sandwiched between daily chores on the farm, which include tending their garden in the summertime and tending to their year-round kennel, which constitutes their main source of income.
But the real mission of the community is providing shelter and spiritual renewal to women whose lives are broken and battered in some way, be it from an abusive relationship or an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
This mission stems from a desire to carry on the charismatic work of the Rev. Jean Lataste, a Dominican priest in France who visited women in prison to help them reform their lives in the mid-1800s. Back then, with few opportunities for independent lives outside of prison, many of these women chose to devote their lives to God and enter the convent upon their release. These days, however, there are too many worldly distractions, too many things to give up, for women to consider a celibate life of prayer and contemplation. For the most part, the women who spend time with the sisters are there to rebuild their lives before returning to the secular world.
“We’d like to have younger women,” says Sister Renata. “And sometimes they come for three weeks to try it out, but community life is not easy. Living with women you did not choose, sometimes you rub against each other. You have to grow spiritually and psychologically to rise above the difficulties.”
Sister Renata was associated with Bethany House in Millis, Mass., for 30 years until her convent was closed due to lack of vocations. She was told she must return to her native Switzerland, but she felt she was abandoning the people who counted on her community to carry on the work of Father Lataste. She prayed and struggled for seven months, finally deciding to return with Sister Martin to New England to continue their work.
“We went house hunting every weekend,” she recalls. “We had no money. We just trusted in God.”
She and Sister Martin, who is now 91, looked at houses in Vermont and upstate New York before finding the farmhouse in Casco. It needed lots of electrical and plumbing updates (there were no lights upstairs), but the owner was willing to finance their purchase. Somehow, the $1,200 they needed every month just seemed to appear.
“Step by step we could see how God’s plan was working,” Sister Renata says.
A year later, Sister Rosalie, from New Iberia, La., joined the community. She wasn’t a Sister at that time, but simply looking for respite from the outside world. Eight years later, she took her final vows and officially joined the religious community.
“I felt like this was where I needed to be,” she says.
The next year, Sister Ann came from New Jersey, just to see if the contemplative life was right for her. She’s been here 17 years in all.
“My aunt had said, you’ll never be a nun,” she says. “But I enjoy the work we do.”
As the community expanded, they added homemade jellies and holiday fruitcakes to their meager sources of income. Then, 15 years ago, they decided to build a kennel in the huge barn attached to the main house, and started boarding dogs for people on vacation. Charging $15 a day, the sisters are busy in the summer and other vacation times tending to the dogs.
A typical day at the farm starts at 5 a.m. Sister Rosalie usually feeds and walks the dogs before meditation begins. After breakfast, the sisters hop into their car for the ride to a local church for morning Mass. Because of the shortage of priests in Maine, no one is available to come to the farm to say Mass.
By 10 a.m., they have returned to the farm, where they do their chores until lunchtime. After a short prayer session, they eat their big meal of the day. The afternoons consist of an hour of silent prayer, an hour of study, and time alone or in the chapel in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, or Holy Eucharist, which Catholics worship as the body of Christ. After supper, the sisters watch the news, view a movie, or play board games. At 8 p.m., they pray again before retiring for the evening.
With all five of the sisters, save one, at “retirement age,” the question looms as to how long their mission will go on. While the Sisters are plugged into the outside world with cell phones, computers and a website, the pace of life is radically different even from the sleepy village down the road from their farm.
The Sisters’ faith, however, deflects such concerns. They are here in service to God and have an inherent belief that God will provide for them. Sister Christine, 50, is proof of that. After having cared for her ailing mother for many months, she was only looking to stay for three weeks when she arrived five years ago.
“A lot (of midlife converts) say they had a calling years ago, but there’s a lot of noise to get through,” says Sister Christine, who is from South Portland. “It’s hard to say no to the outside world. God is persistent.”
A statue of the Virgin Mary, above, welcomes visitors to the rambling farmhouse of the Community of the Resurrection. Sister Ann, right, descends from the farmhouse’s second floor, on her way to the dentist. Photos by Rich Obrey