PORTLAND – Sister Mary Louise Landry was in familiar territory on Tuesday, celebrating her 102nd birthday with a ferry ride on Casco Bay.
The two-hour excursion was another high point in an extraordinary life spent serving others and breaking barriers in education and health care in quiet but deliberate ways, including leadership positions at Mercy Hospital. It also was a fun trip for several of the 78 Sisters of Mercy of the Americas who live in Maine.
Landry, who joined the Sisters of Mercy 84 years ago, used to spend part of each summer on Little Diamond Island, helping to care for girls from St. Elizabeth’s Home. The former orphanage and child care center in Portland had a cottage on the island.
“The day school closed, the girls would head over to Little Diamond for the whole summer,” Landry recalled. “I’d go for a week or two every summer. All I wanted for my birthday this year was to be on a boat and ride down the bay.”
Landry, who is known as Sister Louise and whose birthday was Sunday, was one of five Catholic sisters who took Casco Bay Lines’ Diamond Pass Run to Little Diamond, Great Diamond and Long islands aboard the Aucocisco III.
The sisters boarded before other passengers and settled on the shaded rear deck of the ferry, where the scent of salt water and the roar of the boat’s engines filled the air.
Landry lives at the Frances Warde Convent for elderly sisters on Capisic Street in Portland. She was accompanied by her close friend and fellow resident, Sister Ann Mary Donovan, 97, a Lewiston native who was a bookkeeper at Mercy Hospital for decades. They are among 14 sisters who live at the convent, which provides care similar to that of an assisted-living facility.
For safety’s sake, both Landry and Donovan were in wheelchairs pushed by caregivers, though they’re still able to walk with walkers. Occasionally, they stood by the railing to take in the scenery, though Landry is legally blind and can see little. The wind fluttered the veils of their traditional black habits.
The trip was organized and led by three retired but still active sisters: Anne Marie Kiah, 73, Maureen Wallace, 70, and Maura Murphy, 78, who live in Portland and South Portland in private residential housing owned or leased by the Sisters of Mercy. Each doted over Landry and Donovan.
CALLED AT AN EARLY AGE
Born in 1911, Landry grew up in Old Town, the fourth of 14 children of a baked-goods delivery man and a homemaker. She was called to join the Sisters of Mercy at a young age, impressed by the religious women who taught her in parochial school.
“It’s all I had in my mind,” Landry said. “I wanted to be one of them.”
After high school, she entered the former St. Joseph’s Convent in Portland, taking her first vows in 1932 and studying to become a teacher. She taught for several years at parochial schools in Benedicta and Houlton, in northern Maine, before being tapped to run the pharmacy at Mercy Hospital when it opened on State Street in Portland in 1943.
“As soon as it was being built, they chose sisters to be heads of important departments,” Landry recalled. “I was chosen to run the pharmacy because I had a great love of math and science.”
The sisters sent her to study pharmacology at Fordham University in New York. World War II was in full swing, so she took an accelerated course, attending classes year round and completing her degree in 28 months.
Landry ran Mercy’s pharmacy for a decade then moved to other administrative positions, working at the hospital for about 30 years.
“I really was a groundbreaker in that area,” she admits.
After retiring from the hospital, Landry ran the pharmacy at a nursing home in Eagle Lake, also in northern Maine, and opened the first commercial pharmacy there. Through it all, she readily embraced change, becoming adept using a magnified computer to communicate via email with friends and relatives until her eyesight failed a few years ago.
Change is something the Sisters of Mercy have experienced a lot in recent years. The religious community was founded in 1831 by Catherine McAuley in Dublin, Ireland, to serve people who suffer from poverty, sickness and lack of education, especially women and children. Across the globe, including in Maine, they ran hospitals, schools and orphanages.
Today, the sisters no longer directly operate but continue to sponsor Mercy Hospital, Catherine McAuley High School in Portland and St. Joseph’s College in Standish.
Many sisters no longer live in convents or wear traditional black habits. The motherhouse on Stevens Avenue closed several years ago.
Overall, the size of the religious community continues to decline, with about 4,000 sisters in 12 countries and 30 women in various stages of considering or taking their vows. The 78 Sisters of Mercy in Maine range from age 52 to 102, said Sister Maureen Wallace, administrator for the sisters in Portland.
Across Maine, there are 285 sisters in 22 various religious communities within the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, down from 1,501 sisters in 1943, according to The Official Catholic Directory published by P.J. Kenedy & Sons.
There are 25 convents in the state, from Old Orchard Beach in York County to St. Agatha in Aroostook County, according to diocesan spokesman Dave Guthro.
Various factors have contributed to the decreasing number of sisters, including smaller families, more career opportunities and broader social standards, said Sister Rita-Mae Bissonnette, diocesan chancellor.
“Women have greater opportunities for education and careers than they did 30 or 40 years ago,” Bissonnette said. “It has also become acceptable to be a single woman without being a (sister). At one time you had to be married or enter a convent to be ‘respectable.’ It is also possible for the laity to have a ministry in the church today and also be married.”
Still, the sisters say they have hope and faith that their work and communities will continue.
Ferry captains Gene Willard and John Tracy oversaw the sisters’ scenic ride on Tuesday. Tracy presented a birthday cupcake with two bright green candles. He also shared the helm for a moment with Sister Anne Marie Kiah, who taught both men’s children at Holy Cross School in South Portland.
“It’s special because Sister Anne Marie wanted this to happen, and she’s so happy because they’re so happy,” Tracy said. “It brings back a lot of memories. That 100-year mark is pretty special. …When you think about what Sister Louise saw. She survived wars, the Great Depression, a lot of things. Pretty amazing.”
Today, Landry and her dear friend Donovan enjoy garden walks to visit a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes in the back yard of the Frances Warde Convent, according to their caregivers.
Landry usually gives thanks for their caregivers, family members and friends. Donovan typically adds, “What she said.” Then they return to the convent for a maple walnut ice cream cone. If Landry needs something, such as another piece of toast at breakfast, Donovan will ask for it.
“Sister Louise never asks for anything,” said Mary Rich, a caregiver. “Everything’s OK with her. She never complains.”
Landry’s verdict on her birthday boat ride?
“It was beyond what I expected,” Landry said. “It was the best birthday I’ve had in many years.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 10:35 a.m. on Aug. 22, 2013, to reflect that Mercy Hospital is on State Street.
Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: