Sister Viola Lausier, known as “Sister Vi” to colleagues at the St. Andre Home in Biddeford, is a tireless advocate working to improve the lives of women and children. Now 86 years old, she was born in Aroostook County, one of 16 children born at home to third-generation Franco-American parents.

Last month, Sister Vi was honored by MaineToday Media as one of the 2011 Great Women of Maine, one of 15 women recognized at the first awards ceremony honoring the recipients for their community service, leadership and excellence.

Sister Vi, who has been finance director of the nonprofit St. Andre Home for 30 years, said she is proud of her Franco-American heritage. She grew up in a French-speaking household in the tiny town of Grand Isle Maine, near Canada.  In the 2000 census, Grand Isle counted a total population of 518 people.  It’s always been a tiny town.

“Everyone in my family is proud of our French speaking heritage,” she says. Her brother is a retired French professor.

At 16, she entered the religious order of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, also known as the Good Shepherd Sisters of Quebec.

“I always wanted to work with children,” she says. The Good Shepherd Sisters came to Biddeford to help women and children in 1935, when Biddeford was bursting with French-Canadian immigrants. The late Father Zenon Decary, pastor of St. Andre’s Parish in Biddeford, invited the French-speaking religious order to the area to help care for young French-Canadian immigrant women who were unwed mothers.

Today, the St. Andre Home provides residential care and outreach services for women and babies in crisis throughout Maine, and is a licensed adoption agency.

Sister Lausier taught school for several years before coming to Biddeford. She went to Lincoln High School in Grand Isle, undergraduate studies at Dominican College in Racine, WI., and took finance courses at Indiana’s Notre Dame University during summers, in the years before women were admitted during the regular student year.

Sister Vi enjoys reminiscing about life in Aroostook County and her French-speaking family.

“My dad tried to learn English,” she said.  “We always said our dad spoke English with his hands and face, but his mouth just wouldn’t help him.”

Her father worked as a track man for the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad. Her siblings continue to speak French, and her brother is a French professor.

Although French remains her first language and was once spoken in the convent, the religious life she entered has changed.

It’s been several years since The Good Shepherd Sisters recruited new women to replace their aging numbers. At one time, the large convent at Ferry Beach in Saco housed several dozens nuns.  As the nuns aged, the surviving members moved into the convent in Biddeford.  The large convent on Ferry Beach was recently demolished leaving a large plot of empty land still owned by the religious order.

A chapel inside the building was dismantled, and parts were donated to other churches.  Pews went to a parish in Jackman, where they will placed inside a new church the parish hopes to build.  The 14 Stations of the Cross adorning the chapel’s walls went to Holy Cross Church in Saco.

Sister Lausier says she accepted the honor as one of Maine’s 2011 Woman of the Year on behalf of all the Good Shepherd Sisters.