By Dave Jolivet
FALL RIVER, Mass. — Dominican Sister Gertrude Gaudette passed away on November 3 at Catholic Memorial Home. The humble 94-year-old woman of great faith, who was born in Acushnet, leaves behind a legacy that is second-to-none.
Seventy-one of those wonder-filled years were spent in deep devotion to the God she loved dearly and the Blessed Mother, as a Dominican Sister serving others in myriad ways.
Chronicling the life of Sister Gertrude Gaudette would take far more pages than this publication offers, and to set a number on the lives she touched is outright impossible.
She was a daughter, sister, aunt, friend, teacher, instructor, painter, wood-carver, carpenter, photographer, designer, custodian, builder, and most importantly, a woman of God.
She could as easily pour out her heart and soul for others with carving knives, chisels, paint brushes and a camera, as she could with a set of precious well-worn Rosary beads.
The Holy Family is easily the greatest example of love and service, and Sister Gertrude was a living testament of that example.
As tradesmen, St. Joseph and the young Christ worked with the Father’s great gift of wood, while Blessed Mary took on the far more difficult role of mother, caring for and tending to her husband and Son, all the while raising Jesus in the ways of God.
Sister Gertrude, too, could take an inanimate slab of wood and breathe life into it with tools and patience. Sister Gertrude, too, mentored countless students in the Catholic faith at the elementary and secondary levels, thus allowing them to bring it to others.
She was as comfortable with a group of young minds as she was carving intricate coats of arms for five Catholic bishops.
“During my years as a priest and bishop, I came to know Sister Gertrude Gaudette as a faith-filled religious and extraordinary artist who donated much of her time and talent to expressing that faith with beauty and meaning,” Bishop Emeritus George W. Coleman told The Anchor.
“I was deeply grateful to her for preparing my coat of arms when I was named Bishop of Fall River. Shortly thereafter she designed a logo to highlight the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Fall River Diocese in 2014. The logo, expressing the centennial theme ‘The Spirit Gives Life,’ was incorporated in the stationery, publications, and programs of diocesan parishes, ministries and apostolates.”
Sister Gertrude was the youngest of five children of the late Louis and Augustine (Gauthier) Gaudette. A Rochester farm was the site of her childhood, where she, as a 12-year-old, along with an accomplice, built a 20-by-12-foot log cabin for area youth to enjoy.
She attended St. Francis Xavier School in Acushnet, graduating just as the Great Depression cast a pall over the U.S.
It was a Dominican Sister who encouraged the young Gertrude to attend Dominican Academy in Fall River. She graduated from the all-girl boarding school in 1941.
She entered the Dominican Sisters of Fall River novitiate in August of 1945, made her first profession in 1947 on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8. She made her final profession three years later to the day.
She earned a bachelor of arts degree in Art History and Social Studies from Regis College and a masters of fine arts from Catholic University.
She pursued more art studies at Plattsburgh State University, taking on photography, ceramics, sculpture, and jewelry-making.
Sister Gertrude spent most of her time in the Fall River Diocese, teaching at Dominican Academy Elementary School in Fall River, home to St. Francis Xavier School in Acushnet, St. Anne’s School in Fall River, and back to Dominican Academy, first at the elementary level, then the secondary.
She spent time as moderator of the D.A. alumni association; its yearbook, Dominilog; and the sodality.
Sister Gertrude also served her order as local treasurer, secretary general, and as a member of the general council.
While living in Fall River, Sister Gertrude was often enlisted to take pictures for The Anchor.
Through most of the 1970s into the early 80s, she was an art teacher at Bishop Stang High School in North Dartmouth, remaining there until 1983 when she opened the Creativity Center at the motherhouse on Park Street in Fall River. Countless men, women and children received gentle, knowledgeable instruction there from Sister Gertrude until the convent closed and she moved to The Landmark in Fall River, where she also offered art classes.
In Luke’s Gospel 12:48, Jesus said that much will be required of those to whom much is given. Sister Gertrude was blessed with a plethora of talents, and she wasn’t afraid to use them. It didn’t seem to faze her, and if it did, it wouldn’t show.
In a 1978 Anchor feature on Sister Gertrude, her dear friend and Anchor mainstay and future Landmark fellow resident, the late Pat McGowan wrote of her:
“Want an elevator repaired? A furnace fixed? Maybe an auditorium constructed? Or pictures taken? A few signs painted?
“You only need one person — providing that she’s Sister Gertrude Gaudette.
“The diminutive dynamo has, over the years, completely renovated the interior of the huge Dominican Academy and convent on Park Street, Fall River, where she lives.
“Her projects have included elevator and furnace maintenance, conversion of an enormous dormitory into several regulation size classrooms, building the academy’s auditorium, renovating its refectory and constructing a portable altar.
“The work involved erecting walls, installing windows, attaching blackboards, making and installing bulletin boards and building platforms for teachers’ desks.”
No small feat for a burly 250-pound contractor, yet even more incredible for a petite Dominican Sister.
A prime example of her spunk, was her taking a 15-week wood-carving course at Burns Tool Company in Fall River, where her classmates were 20 men, including laborers and executives.
Sister Gertrude honed her wood craft studying in St. Jean-Port-Joli, in southern Quebec, Canada — a village renown for its many artisan wood-carvers and events.
Sister Gertrude explained her affinity for working with wood to the Dominican Sisters’ magazine, Windows on Hope: “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.’”
In 1981, she was enlisted by the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in Attleboro to create murals, billboards and displays for the shrine’s annual Christmas Festival of Lights, most notably, the “Alphabet Books,” displayed about the circumference of the Rosary Pond.
Her works of art are far too numerous to mention, but suffice it to say, they enhance the interiors and exteriors of many diocesan buildings and some secular ones as well.
Sister Gertrude was as humble as she was talented. Sister of St. Joan of Arc Rita Teasdale was secretary at the bishop’s office for 20 years and recalls asking for Sister Gertrude’s assistance for a project.
“We had a beautiful Infant of Prague statue at the house and through the years it had become damaged in need of repair,” she told The Anchor. “We asked Sister Gert if she could restore it, and she doubted if she could. ‘I don’t usually do things like this,’ she said. But Sister Gert took on the project anyway.
“Well, it came out beautifully. Around the holidays we invited Sister Gert to come to the bishop’s house to see where her efforts went. We had the statue on display in the parlor, and Sister Gert was so happy and honored to know it was there and that she was invited to the house.
“It struck me that she didn’t feel worthy to be there. She was such a humble and sincere person as well as a talented artist.”
As well-known as Sister Gertrude was for her great works of art, it was her vocation as a Dominican Sister of Hope that was her great passion.
About her calling to become a Sister, she once told a local publication, “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.”
“Pope Paul VI, at the closing of Vatican Council II, expressed a message to artists: ‘Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart, and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration. And all this through the work of your hands’,” added Bishop Coleman. “Sister Gertrude’s life fulfilled that description. May she rest in peace.”
Sister Gertrude is survived by nieces, nephews, cousins, and members of her congregation.
She is predeceased by siblings Bernard and Ruby Gaudette, Theresa Charest and Pauline Criteau.
A Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated at St. Mary’s Cathedral on November 7. Interment was at Notre Dame Cemetery in Fall River. Auclair Funeral Home was in charge of the arrangements.
Donations in Sister Gertrude’s memory may be made to the Development Office of the Dominican Sisters of Hope, 299 North Highland Avenue, Ossining, N.Y. 10562.