At a jubilee Mass in mid-September, Sister Phyllis Doyle celebrated her 70 years of service to the church by renewing her vows of chastity, poverty and obedience and service to the poor, sick and ignorant. Courtesy / Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland

PORTLAND — Sister Phyllis Doyle realized her calling in a traumatic way at a young age: She was coming home from a dance her senior year in high school when she was struck by a car. Just before losing consciousness, she recalled thinking that she might die.

When she suffered only a broken collar bone, she decided that it was a sign she had been looking for. Doyle had been debating whether to become a nun. After the accident, her choice became clear.

Now, after 70 years of service to the Catholic Church, Doyle said she has no regrets.

At a special jubilee Mass in September, Doyle, along with several other nuns, was recognized by Bishop Robert P. Deeley of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland for her long-time devotion to the Sisters of Mercy. During the Mass, the nuns being recognized also renewed their vows of chastity, poverty, obedience, and service to the poor, sick and ignorant.

“The diocese is grateful for the valuable contributions the Sisters of Mercy have made to the Church,” Dave Guthro, the diocese spokesman, said in an interview. Over years the nuns have “enriched our state and continue, by their example, to show young people the joy that comes with serving God.”

Doyle, 89, was born in Portland and graduated from the now-defunct Cathedral High School in the East End. She had four sisters and three brothers. Her mother died when she was just 8 and the nuns at school became like mother figures to her, she said.

Sister Phyllis Doyle has been a nun with the Sisters of Mercy for 70 years. She’s a Portland native and here enjoys a quiet moment at the chapel in the Deering Pavilion where she now lives. Kate Irish Collins / The Forecaster

Still, it wasn’t until late in her senior year of high school that Doyle even considered becoming a nun. She initially thought she would work for a while and then marry like other girls her age.

But as president of the school’s Sodality Club, a church-based group for young women that encouraged them to practice purity, virtue and charity, she saw a magazine article that caught her attention.

The article encouraged those about to graduate to “give God first choice,” when considering a career. That planted the seed, and the more Doyle thought about it and talked with the nuns about dedicating her life to a religious order, the more it appealed to her, she said.

She became a postulant in 1949 and took her final vows in 1951.

Sister Kathleen Smith, who has known Doyle more than 40 years, said Doyle “has a beautiful way of connecting with people and a genuine love for others.”

Smith said Doyle is also “unfailingly kind” and that she’s been an excellent mentor and role model for other nuns.

When Doyle entered the Sisters of Mercy, the nuns had two avenues open to them. They could either teach or minister to the sick, mostly as nurses.

Doyle chose to become a teacher and, after teaching at both the elementary and secondary school level, enjoyed a long career teaching English at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish.

Sister Phyllis Doyle taught English at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish for 30 years. Courtesy

“I had a wonderful career in teaching,” Doyle said. “I’m just very grateful and very fortunate. The community provided me with an excellent education and my life has just been so enriched. God definitely steered me on the right path.”

Doyle began her teaching career at Sacred Heart School in Portland. While at Saint Joseph’s, she taught modern American and Russian literature and also designed a specialty course on women in literature.

Smith said she got to know Doyle well after the two worked at Saint Joseph’s together. While Doyle taught, Smith provided administrative support and also worked in the library.

Smith said Doyle has introduced her to a wide range of books and movies over the years of their friendship and said one of the things she appreciates about Doyle is that “she truly loves to impart her love of literature to others.”

Early in her career, Doyle wore a full habit. But when she was pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Rhode Island in the 1970s, she decided to switch to contemporary dress. She felt at the time, and still does, that being dressed in a habit only served to isolate and separate her from others.

Sisters of Mercy was founded by Catherine McAuley, who opened the first House of Mercy in Dublin, Ireland, in 1827.

The first Sisters of Mercy arrived in the United States in 1843 where they established a school and hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The sisters came to Maine in 1865 at the request of Bishop David William Bacon, Portland’s first bishop.

Unlike some other religious orders, the Sisters of Mercy are not monastic, living cloistered away from the rest of the world. Instead, their work is centered in the community, Doyle said, and that’s how they earned the name of “walking nuns.”

These days Doyle, who is also a published poet, keeps busy with a book club, watching classic movies and keeping up with politics. She also ministers to other nuns who are less independent than she is.

She still drives and also enjoys interacting with her large extended family. Only one of her siblings is still alive, but four family members were able to attend the jubilee Mass, which meant a lot to her, Doyle said.

Five other Sisters of Mercy  live in her apartment building, the Deering Pavilion, and they often get together, she said. They also share a weekly Saturday afternoon Mass in the first-floor chapel.

Doyle would encourage any young woman who has even a “small seed” of interest in joining a religious community to pray about it and talk to others who’ve chosen a life of service.

The Sisters of Mercy, which is now an international organization, currently has 45 nuns living and working in Maine, according to Cathy Walsh, communications specialist for the Sisters of Mercy – Northeast Community in Rhode Island. Fifteen years ago, she said there were approximately 91 sisters in Maine.

The Sisters of Mercy have 20 new women partaking in formation, Walsh said. Eleven of them are from the U.S. while the reminder are from the Caribbean, South America and the Philippines. Overall, she said, there are approximately 9,000 Sisters of Mercy worldwide.

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