Pair of Dominican Sisters celebrate 100 years of life, faith and service

By Becky Aubut
Anchor Staff
beckyaubut@anchornews.org

DIGHTON, Mass. — The Dominican Sisters of the Presentation was founded in Sainville, France in 1696, and for more than 300 years the Sisters have been engaged in charitable work worldwide. For nearly a third of those 300 years, two nuns currently residing at its United States’ headquarters in Dighton have been living monuments to the religious order’s missionary presence in education, health care, parish ministries and social services. 

Sister Marie Thérèse Ernou will be turning 100 in March, and Sister Mary Thomas More will turn 100 in August. While Sister Mary Thomas can often be found relaxing in a chair, gazing out a window and enjoying the view, Sister Marie Thérèse still does her own wash, cleans her room and will take out her own trash. 

“The resiliency of these Sisters really inspires me,” said major superior Sister Vimala Vadakumpadan. “All their lives, they have been through so much but giving so much life instead of feeling pity for themselves while going through all those moments. They are like spitfires.  They are giving, not only to the community, but also to the people to whom they minister. The Sisters love these people and there are still people visiting them. The impact these Sisters made on the people with whom they worked or as friends, it still remains.”

Born “in the shadow of the motherhouse” in Tours, France, Sister Marie Thérèse said her earliest memories of her interaction with the Sisters began when she was four years old when she would go with her sister to the convent.

“One of my sisters liked to go to the Vespers at the motherhouse,” she said.

The youngest of eight children, Sister Marie Thérèse said she felt “the call of the Lord” at a young age.

“I felt like He was talking to me. I was at midnight Mass making my First Communion and I said I have to answer,” she recalled.

She entered the religious order at age 20 in 1936, the same year the Spanish Civil War began. She remembers how her fellow Dominican Sisters of the Presentation escaped the violence and made their way to the motherhouse in France.

“We saw the Sisters come in from Spain — I was a novice at this time — they didn’t want us to see them. They were miserable, a mess; they had come by boat,” she said. 

Sister Marie Thérèse would soon experience war herself a few years later during her time in Paris, when World War II broke out. Having already professed, she was working in a city hospital when the Germans began to make their way into the city.

“It wasn’t good so we had to leave. The superior said not to stay around, to go south. Some Sisters were there already,” said Sister Marie Thérèse.

She didn’t leave right away, and Germans continued to make their presence known through gunfire and bombings. One day, she said, there was a Blitzkrieg-type of attack that she remembers where the bombs came so down hard and fast that it scared her.

“The enemy was coming closer, and some Germans were coming to the hospital” for treatment, she added. 

“One morning at two or three o’clock, mother superior said, ‘You go with the military.’ So we left Paris to go to the motherhouse,” said Sister Marie Thérèse.

When the small group of nuns arrived at the motherhouse in Tours, they discovered the Germans were occupying the area so they had to leave immediately. Having no arranged transportation, Sister Marie Thérèse and two others set off on foot. The goal was to get to a safer location, “but we were three young nuns” walking alone.

“One day we were walking, suddenly French military came up and stopped us,” she said, stating the soldiers thought they were German. “They stopped the three of us and we were sitting on the grass, and we tried to explain. I tried to explain how I was French and that I was born here.” 

The soldiers kept their guns at the ready as the three nuns were interrogated. Already exhausted from days of walking, and after being questioned all day, they reached a breaking point, she said: “If you don’t believe us, you can shoot us. We couldn’t do anymore. Finally they let us go because I was able to give them enough information.”

Sister Marie Thérèse survived the war, ending up back in Paris, studying to become a nurse, and working at a hospital for more than 20 years. She then received a call to return to the motherhouse in Tours, where she discovered she was being sent to America. After arriving in Fall River, she found a familiar connection conversing with the Canadian nuns in Dighton. “For me, it was something of France,” she said.

She worked at Saint Anne’s Hospital, and then Madonna Manor in North Attleboro: “I was there to receive the first patient,” she said of the then-newly-built facility. She then worked at Marian Manor in Taunton before retiring in 2001. 

Sister Mary Thomas also has a rich history, but according to Sister Marie William Lapointe, she’s reluctant to talk about many of the details.

Born in Scotland, Sister Mary Thomas was an ambulance driver in England during World War II. She also worked at a school as a gym teacher in England, becoming close to two nuns who also worked at the school. Sister Marie William thinks those friendships may have inspired Sister Thomas More to embrace her calling, though it took until reaching her mid-30s before she entered the Dominican Sisters religious order.

“She was not young when she entered. I think she was 35 or 37, about that,” recalled Sister Marie William.

Sister Marie William said that Sister Mary Thomas must have stories from her time during the war, but “she would never talk about that; much of her life was private. She is a very private woman.”

Still, Sister Thomas More never let go of her appreciation for fitness by keeping up her exercises, especially swimming. She also was a great gardener, working in her little garden on the grounds of the headquarters in Dighton well into her 90s. 

After she professed at 45 years old in 1961, Sister Mary Thomas came to the United States that same year. She continued her education and held myriad of jobs that included being assistant executive director of Saint Anne’s Hospital and administrator of Madonna Manor. She was also active in the St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir.

In the mid-80s, said Sister Marie William, “I believe Sister Mary Thomas started Hospice in Fall River. I believe she was one of the first Hospice nurses. When she saw a need, she went with it. It was the time that Hospice was starting and she went right with it.”

She volunteered at an oncology clinic at Saint Anne’s up until two years ago, said Sister Marie William. When the clinic was a nonprofit, Sister Marie William recalled how Sister Thomas More would hold fund-raisers for the clinic, including an annual golf tournament where she would sit under her umbrella and sell tickets.

Sister Thomas More was noted for all her community work, receiving a few awards including the Taunton Area Chamber of Commerce Woman of the Year in 1990.

Now Sister Thomas More is content to sit and relax, and those she has touched through her years of service often visit her.

“She had many friends. She was well liked by many, many people. People still visit her. She doesn’t talk much, just sits and watches the outdoors, often saying how lucky she is to be here,” said Sister Marie William. “She appreciates the care she is getting. She appreciates the scenery. She’s so grateful. When you see her look out the window, you feel that she’s going back in time and thinking about so many things.”

And though neither nun has unlocked the secret of immortality, Sister Marie Thérèse credits her gene pool for her longevity and health. Her mother lived to 103, and she had a brother and a sister live to 100.

“I’ve had an exciting life. All the people I’ve had contact with over the years. They have so much to teach you,” she said in her still present French accent. “The Lord has been good to me.”

© 2017 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing  †  Fall River, Massachusetts