LEWISTON — The room isn't very big; in fact, it used to be a confessional when St. Mary's was an operating church.
But while the space may be small, the memories it evokes are huge. The Sisters of Charity of Saint-Hyacinthe exhibit was unveiled Wednesday, and the reaction was immediate.
"Oh, my God," said one woman, looking at the array of photos on the wall and seeing familiar faces. "That's Sister Ruth. Remember her?"
"Oh, yes. And there's Sister Lucille."
"Oh, wow. This is amazing."
They were elbow to elbow as they toured the room, and they had to take turns. Outside, next to the former church nave, Annette Bourque was listening to those memories and beaming.
"I'm loving this," said Bourque, who designed much of the exhibit. "I love watching them and listening to their reactions."
The exhibit chronicles — through extensive photos and documents — the lives and work of the Grey Nuns, who served Lewiston for 130 years.
The sisters came to Lewiston, said Rita Dube, executive director of the Franco-American Heritage Center, at a time when there were no such things as food stamps, social services or welfare benefits.
The nuns were called on to work in the hospitals where they worked as nurses, anesthesiologists and X-ray technicians. They were teachers and healers and friendly faces in bad times.
"Our Canadian immigrants knew they could turn to the sisters for help," Dube said.
When you walk into the room that houses the exhibit, the first thing that grabs you are the photos. Some are 8 feet high and show the sisters at work. There is a nun in full dress reading to a pair of young girls. There is another holding a newborn.
Among the photos are artifacts such as ledgers that date back to the turn of the last century. These were where the nuns jotted the names of the patients and details about their hospital stays. For a time, the ledgers were gathering dust.
Pam Beaule, who works with St. Mary's Regional Medical Center, found them in the basement of a building while she was at work.
"We said, 'We've got to give these to the sisters to keep,'" Beaule said.
Now the ledgers are right there waiting to be browsed by visitors to the new exhibit. Nearby, is a life-size mannequin showing off the traditional garb worn by the sisters.
Step through the door, and the mood of the era gets you at once.
"It just gives you such a warm feeling, such warm memories," Bourque said. "People can come in here for research or for a little reflection."
A documentary about the sisters is a big part of the exhibit. It was shown at the Heritage Center on Wednesday night, and it's always available on a computer inside the room.
According to Dube, the exhibit was two years in the making. Honoring the "brave and strong women who built this community and many others like it" was only a part of their motivation. Educating people about all that the nuns did for the community is another.
"Their stories needed to be told," Dube said.