There is her faith, an anchor point that holds her safe in an ever-changing world, and there is also her large family – her brother Ralph, 89, the surviving member of her seven siblings, speaks with her often and her many nieces and nephews, great nieces and nephews, and even now adult pupils whom she taught for many years in area Catholic School.
Sister Hope, who turns 102 on May 19, is still in charge of her life as a sign in her room at Mount Saint Rita’s Health Centre professes.
“Please do not move any of Sister Hope’s things. She is able to clean up after herself,” the handwritten note taped to the wall near her many family photos informs her caregivers.
She needs a walker to get down the hallway to her wing’s dining room, but Sister Hope still makes the trip and also enjoys the afternoon bingo game with her fellow residents if they have prizes to win.
“If they don’t have prizes it’s not any fun,” she tells a visitor.
“There has to be something to work for,” she says while explaining she keeps the prizes to give to her great nieces and nephews when they come to see her. She sits in her comfortable chair dressed neatly in a blue paisley top and white sweater highlighted with embroidered pink, blue and yellow roses, and a plain blue skirt and flat shoes. The black and silver cross hanging around her neck on a silver chain was given to her by her sister, Ruth, who died at the age of 99.
“I value it and I told her I would wear it all the time,” Sister Hope says while looking down at it through her wire-frame glasses.
Sister Hope has been a resident of Mount St. Rita since 2004 and had previously lived with a number of other sisters at Franklin Court in Bristol.
Since settling in at the Health Centre on 50 acres off Summer Brown Road, Sister Hope’s outgoing nature has made her well known to the facility’s staff and others who visit there.
“Sister Hope is a joy to be around and has a wealth of knowledge and a beautiful spirit,” says Centre Administrator Stephanie Igoe.
Ernie Blanchette, Mount St. Rita’s community outreach coordinator, takes school children visiting the Centre to meet Sister Hope because she loves to talk with them. “People come in to meet her and they end up falling in love with her,” he says. “She is very easy to speak with.”
When she was younger, Sister Hope was the active sort, she says. Her family lived in a home on Warwick Avenue in Cranston near Roger Williams Park. She had a canoe in those days and would spend many hours out on the lake near the Temple to Music.
“I liked all outdoor sports and never cared for movies. That was indoors and I liked everything outdoors,” she says. She loved to skate and says she taught her brother Ralph the skating ability that made him a hockey player for Dartmouth, and a member of the U.S. Olympic hockey team in 1948.
Religious as a young student at St. Patrick’s Catholic school in Providence, Sister Hope took an assessment of her life while she was in the sixth grade and decided then and there that she would join a religious order when she became 21.
She made that decision because she wanted to help out with her four brothers, William, James, Leo and Ralph, and her three younger sisters, Ruth, Rita and Anna. She would go on to graduate from St. Xavier’s High School and take stenography at Bryant-Stratton College, before going to work in business for several years.
She became a novitiate with the Sisters of Mercy in 1934 and was sent to a Catholic teachers college in Providence. She started teaching in the elementary grades at the Saint Patrick School and also taught at the Saint Edward’s School in Providence before moving to her favorite teaching assignment, 10 years with the St. Mary’s School in Pawtucket.
She worked under Monsignor Holland there and was always busy “doing the budget and doing our lesson plans,” she says. “We were as busy as we could be but we were all very happy there,” she remembers of those years.
As a teacher, Sister Hope had tough rules for the classroom but was not above spending time with her pupils on the playground at recess. “I would play jump rope and walk up and down the yard with them and play hopscotch,” she remembers.
“But I was strict in school because I wanted them to learn. They thanked me later,” she says. Elementary students are the easiest to teach since they listen to their teachers and are very helpful, Sister Hope says. High school students are more difficult since they are often distracted by things not related to their studies, she adds.
Sister Hope’s father, William, died at the age of 57 in 1939 of a bout of strep throat, and she believes he had been weakened by all the work he faced as a real estate and insurance business owner in the wake of the Hurricane of 1938.
Her mother, Mary, was at loss for what to do with so many children and called upon her newly married son, Bill, to come home and help out. Bill had been working as a newspaperman and gave it up to take over his father’s business. He never completely gave up reporting work, his sister recalls, and worked part-time in newspapers for many years even with his other responsibilities.
In her own work as a teacher, Sister Hope spent many years teaching second grade for Catholic schools such as St. Theresa’s in Pawtucket, St. Augustine in Newport, the Holy Ghost School and Saint Peter’s in Warwick, and then taught a business course back at St. Xavier Academy, and taught a religion course at St. Mary’s Academy, Bayview.
Teaching was always fulfilling and Sister Hope tells how one of her pupils asked her for after-school help many years ago.
The student told her he wanted to become a priest and also a teacher and Sister Hope went to work to see what she could do. She eventually opened a door for him with the Holy Cross order.
In 2010, the Rev. Robert Baker wrote Sister Hope a letter thanking her for helping him find his vocation. Father Baker wrote that he has been working in Lima, Peru, with a missionary team, since 1974, and was part of a large parish serving in the poor in that city.
The then 67-year-old former student had been a priest for 40 years and told Sister Hope, “You were so right about living and working in a religious community as a wonderful way to be doing God’s work among the poor.”
The letter is kept with Sister Hope’s other written mementos which she likes to read to her visitors. She also keeps a journal and quickly finds the entry she wrote when her family members came on Easter to take her out to dinner at the Wharf Restaurant in Warren.
They had to carry her up the stairs in the wheelchair she sometimes uses for longer travels but she loved the shrimp dinner she had during the family gathering at a “big long table.”
Sister Hope has learned many things during her century of life but offers very simple observations about her own experiences during that long span of time.
Woodrow Wilson was President when she was a child and she has seen many presidents come and go since that time, she says.
There have been fewer Popes of the Catholic Church during that same period because “they last a lot longer,” she notes. And if she were to pick one as a favorite, Sister Hope says that should be the current one, newly named Pope Francis.
“He is very humble and everyone likes him,” she tells her visitor. The new Pope may also bring change to the church, she believes, because as she sees things, there is always change. “I think we are going to see a lot of change,” she says.
As for her own role in day to day things, Sister Hope says she has her job saying prayers for people she knows or people who she feels may need some help from God.
“I say my prayers and they are always about other people,” she says. “And lot of them are answered, they really are,” she says.