LEWISTON — Sister Claire Pouliot may be the last of the Grey Nuns serving at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, but at 68 years old, she’s far from slowing down.

In her 16th year as a social worker at d’Youville Pavilion nursing home, Pouliot has seen the sisters’ presence dwindle. But their mission continues.

“Because there’s one sister, you see the whole community,” Pouliot said. “You see all the sisters that came before me, and I’m on their shoulders and it’s still continuing. It’s not, ‘Oh, poor me, what can I do?’ You see me, you see the whole community. It’s like the church. You see the church and we’re the ones continuing. I’m just continuing the legacy that Marguerite d’Youville started.”

The Grey Nuns came to Lewiston in 1888 and founded what became known as “the Sisters,” “Catholic” or simply “The French” hospital on the site of the Golder house on Sabattus Street.

In 1908, the hospital was officially named L’Hopital Generale Ste. Marie, or St. Mary’s General Hospital.

At its peak, the Sisters of Charity of St. Hyacinthe’s numbered about 100, caring for the infirm, the elderly and children, including orphans and the unattended children of millworkers.

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“‘Go to the sisters — they never refuse anybody,'” was the saying among the French-speaking millworkers who had nowhere else to turn in need, Pouliot said.

Pouliot grew up in the 1940s and ’50s in Manchester, N.H., with four brothers and four sisters and a whole lot of Catholic education, “all the way through grammar school and high school,” she said.

Growing up, Pouliot didn’t have a car or extravagances; she had her family life. When she felt the call, she was compelled to serve God and other people. She said she believes people are still called today, but there are a lot of distractions. It’s not an “in” thing to consecrate your life to God.

She said the family had one TV in her father’s control, and that’s how she gained a love of hockey, football and baseball.

Her loyalty to New England teams was something she had to rein in while at the Mother House in Quebec.

“I had to be careful because I was for the Bruins, and it was OK for me to lose,” she said. “But when the Canadiens lost, it was not the same thing.”

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Her childhood education, however, was not under the instruction of the Sisters of St. Hyacinthe.

Pouliot said that although she was unaware of the Sisters of St. Hyacinthe while working at Notre Dame Hospital in Manchester, she met the sisters serving there and came to know the Grey Nuns.

“And one of them says, ‘Have you ever thought about being a sister?’ Pouliot said, “and I’m like, ‘Nooo,’ and so that is how I met them, and I got to know them and they sort of directed me.”

After that, Pouliot filled out the application and was accepted to St. Hyacinth in 1967.

“It’s a call from God to service and to service of the church,” she said. “It’ s not something you hear with your ears. It’s something you feel with your heart and you can do either of two things: You could either respond or say no.”

Pouliot described her career as “varied.” She worked in Scarborough with young boys and then back in Manchester with young girls at St. Peter’s Home. She came to work in Lewiston at the Healy Day Care Center at the corner of Ash and Bates streets before it closed in 1973.

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Pouliot made her first commitment to the consecrated life in August 1968. She spent a year in St. Louis, Mo., to study theology. She made her final commitment to the consecrated life in 1974.

Her early vocations drew her to business offices and child care — from the Mother House in Quebec to an orphanage in Manchester — before changing gears in the late 1980s, working at an elder care facility in Rhode Island. It was there she discovered her love of working with the elderly.

Pouliot took a position at St. Joseph’s Manor in Portland between 1989 and 1992 while taking classes at Westbrook College. In 1994, she received a bachelor’s degree in sociology. In 1997, she earned a master’s degree in social work and pastoral ministry from Boston College.

That year, Pouliot worked an internship at d’Youville. She was hired full time in 1998.

Explaining her variety of early vocations throughout New England, Pouliot said she simply went wherever she was needed.

“All of those times, I was always living the ‘care-ism’ of revealing God’s love to the poor, to the people that I was working with and lived with, gaining different experiences and focusing on what I really wanted to do,” she said. “And that’s how I ended up here.” 

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She said that six months after entering the Sisters of St. Hyacinthe, her mother died.

“I really felt that I was asked to make a big sacrifice, and God provided — and he’s been providing for me ever since.” 

Pouliot said this experience solidified her faith in divine providence.

“If you trust him and you love him and you have confidence in him, he will take care of you all along the way,” she said. “And that was my experience way back then and now.”

In her work with the elderly, when situations arise and solutions seem elusive, “I find myself praying to Saint Marguerite, ‘Take care of this person, do something for this person, and I give it time and things fall into place. If I can be the person to be able to serve others and to show love, it’s because I’ve received it.”

Pouliot related a story about the power of prayer. She said she was on her way home to Portland one winter day during a snowstorm when she felt a thump coming from her wheel.

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By the time she learned it was a flat tire, she was on the turnpike and didn’t dare pull over for fear for her safety. Slowly, she made her way to the Gray exit.

“So oftentimes, I find myself praying, just praying, and so all I kept saying was, ‘God, bring me home safely, bring me home safely,'” Pouliot said.

“Five minutes later, a neighbor of mine arrived, and five minutes after that, a plow that was plowing the turnpike arrived and it’s a parishioner from my parish,” she said, “and if this isn’t divine providence — God — taking care of me?” She waved a hand as if to shoo away any naysayers.

“You have to trust and you have to believe and you have to have confidence,” she said. “If I have everything I need and never think of God, never think that he’s taking care of me, then it won’t happen.”

Pouliot said God takes care of us all, but we need an openness and awareness that it’s happening. She said the flat tire was a small instance of God’s care. “It’s not only in the big events, but it’s in these tiny events that you see that God takes care of you.”

For example, she said, when Marguerite d’Youville was alive, the hospital needed food and there was no flour. “All of a sudden in the dining room, three barrels of flour appeared,” Pouliot said. “That was her trust in divine providence.”

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D’Youville was beatified in 1959 as “Mother of Universal Charity” and in 1990 was canonized by Pope John Paul II as the first Canadian-born saint.

“I feel that we, the sisters, have really accomplished what the first sisters came to Lewiston for: taking care of the children, teaching them religion, establishing the hospital, establishing the nursing home and the care of the orphan girls and the orphan boys,” Pouliot said.

She said that mission continues in the hospital’s mission statement.

“Those values are being continued,” she said. “That’s really fantastic to see because I’ve worked in other places and there’s not that continuity.”

At d’Youville Pavilion, God’s love is spread through caring, she said.

“It’s listening to and helping families adjust and adapt to having their loved person in here in d’Youville and knowing that it’s OK for them,” she said.

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They’re still their voice — helping, encouraging and listening to them.

“When I go home at night, I say, ‘God, take care of them. Take care of them, help them and I’ll be back tomorrow.”

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The Grey Nuns

Before her canonization, Marguerite d’Youville was married to a man of ill repute, Francois d’Youville. Francois was reputed to be a bootlegger, illegally selling liquor to the local natives.

After his death, Marguerite opened her home to care for the poor and aged, regardless of sex or race. She later moved into a larger home to accommodate the need, followed by like-minded women to aid her.

Those who remembered Francois were initially bitter toward Marguerite, and referred to the women as “les soeurs grises” or, “the tipsy sisters.” The term for tipsy is similar to the French word for grey, “gris.” The name Grey Nuns stuck.

Even after being dubbed the Sisters of Charity of Quebec by the bishop, Marguerite kept the name Grey Nuns as a sign of humility.


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