By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff
FALL RIVER, Mass. — This past May, Sister Gertrude Gaudette, O.P., celebrated 70 years of being a Sister of the Dominicans of St. Catherine of Siena. A true “renaissance” nun, her innate do-it-yourself attitude coupled with an amazing artistic flare can been seen in the pieces of her artwork in permanent residence throughout the Fall River Diocese, including schools, parishes and the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in Attleboro.
The youngest of five children, and currently the last of her siblings still gracing the earth, Sister Gaudette has been a resident at Catholic Memorial Home in Fall River for the last two years. She is of a generation who can remember using an outhouse on a regular basis at her childhood home on a farm in Rochester, and is a child of the Great Depression. Her creative side was showcased in her love of music, and a project she worked on before she was a teen-ager.
Sister Gaudette was 12 years old when she, along with Ernest Labadie, built a log cabin clubhouse on the farm property that was enjoyed by youngsters during that time. According to an article published shortly after it was built, the idea was to build a clubhouse on the edge of the farm that could host sleep-overs (for the boys only); it was 20-by-12-feet with three bunks on one side and a couch on the other, and was used only by “members” of the club that included the Gaudette siblings. A hurricane would later take it away, but the log house holds fond memories for Sister Gaudette as she shared many stories with The Anchor.
She attended St. Francis Xavier School in Acushnet, graduating right as the Great Depression hit the nation. Through the encouragement of a Dominican Sister, she attended Dominican Academy in Fall River, graduating from the boarding school in 1941. By 1946, she had entered the Dominican Sisters, taking the name Sister Louis Bertrand after her father and St. Louis Bertrand.
A local paper quoted her in 1985 about her choice to enter religious life: “The generosity of the Sisters had a tremendous impact on my life as a teen-ager. In my eagerness to repay their kindness, I attempted projects of which I knew next to nothing and, to my surprise, succeeded. I began to realize that Spiritual life is not apart from the rest of existence but an important dimension of everything one does. I will never know why God chose such an ordinary person to live this witness called religious life, but I do know that I have found a mysterious richness here which is probably the reason I stay with a community that struggles to survive.”
She majored in art at Regis College, and then earned a master’s degree in fine arts at Catholic University. She taught second and fifth grade at Dominican Academy, then transferred to the Dominican Academy High School to teach social studies and religion for more than 20 years.
In 1971, Sister Gaudette taught art at Bishop Stang High School in North Dartmouth, but resigned in 1982 to channel and share her artistic side with an even larger group when she took over the Creativity Center run by the Dominican Sisters.
Sister Gaudette also spent time honing her wood-carving skills when during the mid-1960s, she took a 15-week carving course at the Burns Tool Co. in Fall River, and then would later go on to study in the world-renowned French Canadian wood carver’s village, St. Jean-Port-Joli.
Humbled and reserved when talking about what she’s experienced throughout her decades of being a nun in the diocese, Sister Gaudette talked about how one of her first projects was rebuilding the altar at the chapel at the Dominican Sisters convent. She also dove headfirst into helping maintain and renovate Dominican Academy during her years there, installing windows, erecting walls, attaching blackboards and bulletin boards, and building platforms for teachers’ desks.
While working at the academy and offering classes at the Creativity Center, she continued to work on personal projects for the Fall River Diocese. Many of the signs on diocesan buildings are her designs and she carved the coat of arms for five bishops, including Bishops Cronin, Sean P. O’Malley, OFM. Cap., and George W. Coleman as well as Bishop Louis E. Gelineau of Providence. R.I. When Bishop O’Malley became archbishop of Boston, his half-finished coat of arms was abandoned. Later she contacted his successor who gladly accepted the gift after she added his personal scroll to the bottom.
Her summers from 1981-2007 were spent in a garage behind the La Salette Shrine designing and painting murals, and creating displays and huge billboards, including seven billboards that were eight-feet-by-16-feet for the 30th anniversary of the Shrine’s Christmas Illuminations. The “alphabet books” that surround the Rosary pond are still there as generations of families continue to visit the shrine on an annual basis. She also added photographer for The Anchor to her list of credentials. In 1994, she received the Fall River Herald News Golden Apple Award for a second time, becoming only one of two people to receive that honor.
When the convent closed in 2002, her Creativity Center moved with her to The Landmark Senior Living Community of Fall River. While many of her students followed her, she also picked up new students from among the residents.
During her time there, her works were continually celebrated. The Landmark provided an opportunity for Sister Gaudette’s students to display their nearly 100 works of art, including oil and watercolor paintings, as well as wood carvings, created by 39 students.
Her own works were featured at the 90th anniversary celebration of the League of Franco-Americans, based in New Bedford, where she was recognized for her wood carvings of the coat-of-arms for the five bishops as well as the centennial logo for the Diocese of Fall River.
Throughout the years, she has won numerous awards for her carvings, including “Best of Show.” She has also been featured in the newsletter of the New England Woodcarvers, Spirit of Wood, which referred to her as one of the groups “finest members.”
In an issue of Windows on Hope, the news magazine of the Dominican Sisters of Hope, an article focused on the “Artist as Preacher.” In it, Sister Gaudette explained her passion for woodcarving: “God gave me talents, and I feel His pleasure when I use them and share them with my students. My reverence for wood dates back to the Great Depression, when the family was forced to move to the country, where beautiful, tall pine trees surrounded us. My long affection and friendship with trees is one of my finest experiences. Carvers and sculptors enjoy giving the tree a new lease on life. It’s a wonderful feeling to give new life to a block of wood. I think my students feel it, too, as they chip away and enjoy the grain, texture, and strength, and discover that, as William Penn said, ‘Wood is a substance with a soul.’”
Sister Gaudette didn’t just work on projects for her religious community and diocese, she also had many side projects she worked on for friends and family. When Janice Bonner joined Sister Gaudette’s Creativity Class in 1979, she brought to Sister Gaudette’s attention a doll house she had been working on at home. The women worked on it together and crafted a detailed doll house that Bonner treasured for years. It had 3,000 shingles individually sanded, a real oil painting of a ship hung over the fireplace, and the bathroom included a pull-chain toilet. The doll house had a removable back wall, and a complete electrical system. Paying homage to their Catholic faith, the women made sure each bed had a crucifix on the wall behind it.
Sister Gaudette left the Landmark and moved to Catholic Memorial Home in 2013. Her bookshelves are filled with albums stuffed with photos and newspaper clippings of her accomplishments. On her walls are some of her favorite pieces of work, including a cross made with wood from her childhood farm with dried out grape vines weaving its way upwards. Sister Gaudette said the Scripture, John 15:5, inspired the piece: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in Me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing.”
Her niece Louise DesRoches said many family members all have pieces of Aunt Gert’s work, including Christmas ornaments that she made for them every year. She even made a hand-carved, family tree that traced both sides of her family, said DesRoches.
“She could fix an elevator, built altars, a log cabin; there’s a statue [she made] of three little children and Our Lady at St. Francis School,” said DesRoches. “We are lucky to have her. Not everyone has a talented person [in their family].”