NEW GLOUCESTER — When Shakers die, they believe a spirit guide, another Shaker, arrives to take their soul to heaven.

For Sister Mildred years ago, Brother Ted came. For Sister Ruth, it was Sister Mildred.

When Sister Frances Carr died Monday, nearly 90 years old and one of just three Shakers left in the world, it was Sister Mildred who arrived again. The women had been close in life — like mother and daughter — and their reunion at Carr’s passing was expected.

“When we go home, there’s always somebody who comes for us,” said Brother Arnold Hadd, who was one of the people with Carr when she died of cancer early Monday afternoon. “Almost always, we have someone in the community who has the eyes to (see the spirit). We didn’t see it this time, but I think we didn’t need to because we knew it was Sister Mildred.”

Carr moved in with the Shakers at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village when she was just 10 years old, brought to the religious community because her mother couldn’t afford to raise her. She died nearly 80 years later, a beloved — and caring, outspoken, stubborn, dependable — leader of that community.

“To know her has really been a gift,” said Elaine Disch, who for years was head of The Friends of the Shakers, a nonprofit group dedicated to supporting the last active Shaker community in the world. “I can say Sister Frances will probably be in the history books, as well she should be.”

That history could be written sooner than the Friends would like. There were once 6,000 Shakers in America. With Carr’s death, there are now just two, both at the Shaker Village in New Gloucester, one of whom is in her late 70s. 

While outsiders focused on the Shakers’ shrinking ranks this week as news of Carr’s death made headlines worldwide, community members and Friends celebrated Carr’s life. They talked of faith.

They maintained hope for a future that has Shakers still in it.

“I feel very hopeful — I really do,” said Hadd, 60. “I know everyone says ‘Why?’ I don’t disagree with you saying why. But, I don’t know, it’s just an intuition I have.

“I really do believe this is the truth,” he said. “I really believe this is the fullest way of living the life of Christ. I’ve got to feel there are other people who are going to feel that way.”

‘It changed my life, absolutely.’

The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearance was founded in England in the mid-1700s, an offshoot of an offshoot of the Quakers. Outsiders derisively dubbed the group the Shaking Quakers because members trembled and whirled during worship. Even though they long ago started worshiping more serenely, the name Shakers stuck.

Mother Ann Lee and eight followers brought the Shakers to America in 1774. The religion was based on several principles, including faith, hard work, celibacy, honesty, pacifism and community. Members lived communally and — 91 years before slavery was abolished in the U.S. and 146 years before women got the right to vote — they practiced both racial and gender equality, including in leadership. 

Because some of their guiding principles are similar, Shakers, Quakers and the Amish have long been confused for each other by outsiders. Quakers and the Amish, however, don’t practice celibacy and don’t live communally like Shakers. And unlike the Amish, Shakers are progressive and embrace technology; the New Gloucester community currently maintains a Facebook page that has more than 5,200 followers.

Shakerism spread from New England to Kentucky. By the mid-1800s there were 18 Shaker communities, including Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, which was founded in 1783. At the religion’s peak, there were some 6,000 Shakers in the U.S.

The Shakers, who dedicate themselves to perfection in their work, soon became known for handcrafting simple, well-made furniture. Unable to have children of their own because they practiced celibacy, the Shakers also became known for taking in and raising poor or orphaned children, providing food, education and a structured, stable community at a time when there were few other good options for them.

Carr was one of those children. 

Born in Lewiston in 1927, just a couple of years before the Great Depression, she was the sixth of seven children born to Herbert and Margaret Carr. The family was poor and Herbert’s death only made their situation worse. Carr’s mother had already sent two children to live with the Shakers when, in 1937, she brought 10-year-old Carr and her little sister to the Shaker Village.

Most children didn’t stay with the Shakers once they became adults, leaving the  community and its rules for an individual life in the outside world. Carr, always headstrong and spirited, might have been one of them.  

A model Shaker child, she was not.

In a Down East magazine story from a couple of years ago, Carr talked about her rocky first years with the Shakers, about defying a Shaker sister, threatening to forgo her prayers and taking a bucket of maple sugar.

“Oh, I was a handful,” she told the Down East writer.

But Carr loved working in the kitchen and she came to love Sister Mildred. She found peace in the community. 

Unlike so many others, Carr stayed.

The Shakers’ numbers had already started to decline by the time Carr arrived in New Gloucester with her sister. They would only dwindle more over the next several decades as societal changes brought fewer adults interested in dedicating their lives to God and as the advent of foster care and changes in adoption laws led fewer children at the Shakers’ door.

One by one, Shaker communities shut down. By 1992, the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village was the only one still active. 

Although interest in the Shaker life waned, it never disappeared completely. Hadd was a Massachusetts teenager drawn to the communal lifestyle when he spent his first weekend with the Shakers in 1974.

“It changed my life, absolutely,” he said. “Now, how it would change my life I didn’t know. I knew that I had never been anywhere outside of my own home that felt like home. I’d never met strangers who felt like family. And I knew when I was leaving the first thing I did was ask Brother Ted when I could come back.”

He visited for three years, on and off, committed to helping the Shakers but not committed to becoming one himself. In 1977, as Hadd spent the summer with the community, Brother Ted, the elder of the group, began holding a series of “serious, mature, adult conversations” with him.

“You’re not happy,” Brother Ted said.

“But I am happy,” Hadd insisted.

“No, you’re not happy. You’re not really happy,” the elder told him. “Not until you try it.”

With the community’s approval, Hadd joined the Shakers in 1978. He was 21 years old. 

It turned out the elder had been right. Even though his family wasn’t pleased with his choice — his father refused to talk to him for years — Hadd never looked back.

There were six other Shakers when Hadd joined. Members came and went over the years — some died, some tried the life and decided it wasn’t for them, one fell in love with a reporter who did a story on the community and left to get married — but there haven’t been more than 11 Shakers living in New Gloucester in the past four decades.

The community gets at least a few queries each month from people interested in joining. Most never respond after they learn the basics of Shakerism and life in the community, which includes full days of prayer and hard work, as well as the need to give up individual desires in favor of the common good.

In the past 39 years, 35 people made it as far as joining. One was Hadd. One was Sister June Carpenter, who was a 50-year-old librarian from Massachusetts when she learned about the Shakers and felt called to join them in 1989. She is now 78. Once the Shakers’ cataloger, she now helps in the kitchen and dining room, knits items for the Shaker store and edits the Shaker newsletter and other publications.

The other 33 converts left.

“They’re not really called,” Hadd said. “I know that sounds really so haughty in a sense, but it’s the hard essence. Americans have always had a problem about instantaneous everything. And now that we have cellphones, we really are super hyper-instant. So salvation is instant, wisdom is instant, enlightenment is instant, and no one wants to persevere in that. Once you get into it, the thing is, there is kind of a grinding routine. A lot of people find that boring or non-fulfilling.”

Heart of the family

For years, Carr, Hadd and Carpenter were the only Shakers left in the world. In 2015, a 29-year-old Texas man named Brian Burke made news when he joined their ranks, but he left within the year. Once again, Carr, Hadd and Carpenter were the sole members of their religion.  

Carr ran the kitchen and served as community leader and spokesperson, a perfect fit for the woman who grew from that bold little girl.

“Sister Frances was not a shy person and that worked very well for us. In all honestly, she’s like the ultimate ambassador we’ve ever had,” Hadd said. “In the 19th century, there was a sister who was like the hostess-with-the-mostest, but she pales by Sister Frances. It was amazing how she could work a crowd . . . The thing is, she was very sincere. That was the whole of it.”

In her lifetime, Carr wrote several dozen scholarly articles about the Shakers and two books, one about her Shaker childhood and an extremely popular one on Shaker cooking. She participated in a number of lectures, Shaker song performances and cooking demonstrations, and she granted hundreds of media interviews. Carr was known for being outspoken and candid with all people — from college students at the Village for a tour to Martha Stewart there to film a TV segment— but she was also kind. 

Behind the scenes, Carr helped raise her three nieces and, because of her own childhood, was devoted to helping children and the poor. The people who knew Carr best tell stories of her giving up her own meal to feed someone who was homeless, helping fire victims with clothes and necessities, welcoming anyone who showed up at the Village door in need. 

“Those were really good lessons of charity, of selflessness, of realizing that it’s not somebody else’s problem to fix, it can be ours,” said Michael Graham, who started volunteering at Shaker Village as a Bates College student in the early 1990s and is now its director. “That was a tremendous lesson to learn from her. Of course, that’s her nature. All these things can be rooted in her faith.”

Dealing with Alzheimer’s disease, Carr handed over much of her leadership and ambassadorship duties to Hadd in recent years, but she still supervised the kitchen and stayed active within the Village.

“She was the heart of the family,” Hadd said.

Carr seemed relatively healthy until very recently. Then, two weeks ago, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Melanoma had gone undetected and run rampant throughout her body.

Carr died quietly, painlessly, at the Village, surrounded by friends, loved ones and her Shaker brother and sister. 

Hadd released news of her death a few hours later. He was immediately inundated with phone calls, emails and texts from grief-stricken friends of the community.

Hadd expected he would probably cry at Carr’s funeral Saturday, but the day after she died, he was without tears.

“For the Shakers, this is all preparation. This is a transitory life,” he said. “We’re looking ultimately for a union with God and that can’t happen in the body. The sadness is we’re separated . . . but we know she’s with God and we know she’s with people she loved in this life, too. So you’ve got to rejoice with her.”

Media outlets called, too. The Associated Press, National Public Radio, New York Times, The Boston Globe and the Washington Post all ran stories about Carr’s passing. All talked about the Shakers being on the verge of extinction.

But while outsiders are prepared for the group to disappear, the Shakers and their supporters are not.

“That’s not been planned for,” Hadd said. “I’m not trying to be an ostrich with his head in the ground. I’m rather being somebody who honestly believes that’s not going to happen. Believe me, there have been many people who have tried to pressure me into End Days plans, which I reject totally out of hand. I just don’t see it. If the day should come that I feel that’s what it is, then I’ll sit down and make those arrangements, but that’s not how I feel. So, can’t do it.”

‘Shakerism is still alive’

A number of Shaker communities — including Canterbury and Enfield in New Hampshire — remain open in the U.S. without any actual Shakers living there. Run by trustees or volunteer groups, the villages have become Shaker museums, tourist attractions, education centers.

The Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village does a lot of that now. With help from a small staff — a handful of people in the winter, about a dozen in the summer — the Shakers run fairs and festivals at the Village, offer classes on Shaker craftsmanship, operate a museum and library, provide tours of the property and offer retreats.

The Shakers also support themselves through their farm — Hadd, in addition to his other duties, is the main caretaker for the Village’s 52 sheep and nine Scottish highland cows — and through the sale of items in their shops on site and online

Because a few Shakers and a small staff couldn’t do all that and keep up the 1,800-acre property with its 17 historic buildings, they also get help from a large group of dedicated volunteers.

The Friends of the Shakers was formed in 1974 to assist the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village. It has 400 active members, including a number from across the country and overseas, who raise money, work on the property and help out at special events. 

“My experience there has firmed up my own belief in religion, because you can’t be there and not have your faith restored,” said Disch, 88, who was president of the Friends group for years and has regularly traveled from her home in Illinois to help out at the Village.

The Shakers also got some financial help about a decade ago when they placed a conservation easement on the land and a preservation agreement on the historic buildings. It was done to reduce the group’s property taxes since the Shakers never took advantage of laws giving religious organizations a break on taxes.

The move also happens to ensure the property will never be developed.

“Forevermore, whether there are Shakers living or not,” said Graham, the director.

If the Shakers disappear, it is likely Friends or trustees would oversee their legacy. The Village could be run like other Shaker communities, as a historic site, a museum, a tourist stop. 

It’s a future that keeps alive the knowledge of Shakerism, if without any Shakers to practice it.

“Yes, I worry about it. I think all of us who care about them worry about it,” Disch said.

But she and others also have faith — both in God and the Shakers.

“I pray that they have the strength to go on,” Disch said. “I think that both Brother Arnold and Sister June are so deeply religious and have such faith that that will see them through, in one way or another.”

Outsiders have asked why the Shakers don’t allow married couples to join, a change that would likely add members. Hadd bristles at the suggestion.

“Why? Then it’s not Shakerism . . . it’s not what we are,” Hadd said.

He doesn’t believe celibacy is the reason the Shakers are declining, anyway. The group has always abstained from sex, he pointed out, and it’s survived for more than two centuries.

Hadd believes the problem lies in changes in society. People are simply less willing to dedicate their lives to their religion.

“The problem we face is that we’re living in a non-religious world, and so the thought of God being there period, never mind devoting yourself and giving up everything for God, becomes less and less a reality,” he said. “The Shakers are not the only ones feeling this. All the monastic houses that we know are really hurting for vocations.”

It’s hard to find new Shakers even among those who love the life and share their beliefs. The Friends group has 400 members who are passionate about Shakerism, but none has permanently left family, job and home to become a Shaker. Graham, the director, has felt called to the Shakers and has spent more than half his life serving them, but he has not joined either.

“It needs to be faith first and foremost . . . Mine, I’ve never felt, has been strong enough. It’s never been stronger than my love for the temporal,” he said.

The Shakers’ founder taught that if one person in a generation believes, the entire generation will be redeemed. The thought is both comforting and intimidating to Hadd.

“In that sense if there’s one Shaker who’s loyal and faithful, then it works,” he said. “I don’t want to be that one, however. If that’s God’s will, that’s God’s will. But community isn’t one person. We’re stretching it at two.”

He believes, though, that he and Carpenter won’t be the last Shakers. Millions of people may not be devout, but they don’t have to be. Only a few.

“There’s always people called out of every generation. That’s how the balance is maintained,” he said.

Hadd wants people to know one thing.

“Shakerism is still alive and living in Sabbathday Lake,” he said. “And we’re still open to new members.”

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More: Shaker community says goodbye


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