LEWISTON – After a lifetime of shrugging off recognition for her work – helping poor people in America and Africa – the calls of “Speech! Speech” flummoxed Sister Jeanne Nicknair.
“What do I do?” the nun asked, looking at the 100 or more faces smiling back. The people had squeezed into a basilica conference room after the Sunday Mass to thank Nicknair, who retired earlier this year at 71.
Her response was predictable, friends said.
“No matter what she’s doing, it’s never about her,” Rita Dube of Lewiston said. “She deserves this and more.”
Pressed to say something, Nicknair shrugged.
“Keep serving our church,” she said. For someone who has spent her whole life serving, that, too, seemed predictable.
She grew up in northern Maine, the 11th of 12 children. One of her sisters also became a nun. Three brothers became priests.
“I think that was the foundation of her service to the church,” friend Bob Gilbert said. “She has talked about how her mother gave to the church.”
Nicknair became a nun at age 20. Her first assignment was to African American neighborhoods in Portsmouth, Va.
“I loved their warmth,” she said. The Jim Crow laws soured her, though. “We are all children of God: black, white, red, green.”
She found more warmth and even deeper poverty in 1960, when she became a missionary in Malawi in Africa.
The country, which borders Mozambique, has 10 million people but is about the size of Pennsylvania.
She stayed 35 years. She worked as a midwife, “delivering babies up and down the country,” Nicknair said. She also worked to help people manage the size of their families, helping women learn when they were fertile. She called it “natural family planning.”
By 1995, she felt that she had done all she could, having taught many Malawi women to teach others her techniques.
“It was their country,” Nicknair said. “They could do it better than I could.”
She came home to Maine. Within a few months, she found Lewiston’s poorest neighborhoods. At 61, she began 10 years of service here.
“They weren’t church folks, but they were poor,” Nicknair said. “Often, all I would do is listen. I learned perseverance and many had a deep faith in God.”
Sometimes she was scared. But she shrugged off the fears.
“God was with me,” she said.
Gilbert said her contribution was huge. She often helped get people food. But if they needed better plumbing, she’d try to get a plumber.
“She’d call a contractor or an electrician,” Gilbert said. “She’d do what it took.”
Finally, the work took her energy.
“I was tired,” she said. “All my sisters were telling me to stop. So I did.”
Though she is retired, she hasn’t stopped entirely. She helps out at a downtown thrift store and brings Communion to people at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center.
“She’s probably the most positive person I know,” said Dube, who spent years working every Christmas with Nicknair on a toy drive.
“She’d find the neediest of the needy,” Dube said. “She’d find a way to help.”