The Little Sisters of Jesus, who have been crucial to the growth of Catholic communities across the globe, will celebrate the 70th anniversary of its founder’s arrival to Alaska in August.
The first community of the Little Sisters of Jesus was started by Sister Magdeleine Hutin in 1939. They follow in the footsteps of Saint Charles de Foucauld, who lived a contemplative life alongside the Tuareg people of Algeria while maintaining a profound Eucharistic life of prayer.
Sister Magdeleine’s intuition was that a contemplative life does not require living in a monastery but can be lived anywhere, including the hustle and bustle of ordinary life. Thus, the Little Sisters’ ministry is to be a presence of prayer and to offer friendship to all they encounter, according to Sister Magdeleine’s teachings.
It wasn’t until Aug. 4, 1952, that Sister Magdeleine stepped foot in Alaska. That year, she arrived in Fairbanks to search for new places to establish Little Sisters of Jesus communities.
Bishop Francis Gleeson S.J., the apostolic vicar of Alaska at the time, was open to a foundation. Her search led her to Nome, where she heard about Diomede Island.
Diomede embodied two of her most important objectives: first, to search out the people most isolated and difficult to reach; and second, to encircle Russia with a ring of contemplative communities. However, Father Neil Murphy, S.J., the pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish in Nome, advised her to establish a community first in Nome before going to more challenging places. So, the Sisters community was initiated at the end of August 1952.
Shortly after their arrival, the Sisters were introduced to the King Island village at the east end of Nome. In 1954, they moved there.
The Sisters made their first visit to Diomede at the beginning of April 1954. They had planned to stay a week, but the weather was stormy, and their visit lasted over a month.
They returned to Diomede in the fall of 1955. A three-week visit turned into an eight-month stay as another storm prevented them from leaving. For the second time, they were dependent on the people of the community for everything. The Sisters later bought an old semi-subterranean, traditional house in the area. In 1958, they demolished it and started to build a small frame house. It took them three summers to complete the work.
In the beginning, the Sisters stayed in Diomede mostly during the winter when the planes could land on the ice; and in early summer, they returned to Nome by skin boats with some of the people of Diomede. Later on, they stayed almost year-round.
In the 1950s, Nome and Diomede were considered quite isolated places. The Sisters felt the need for a community in a more urban area with medical facilities, as well as a place to rest and pray. At the time, Fairbanks, Alaska‘s second largest city, seemed a logical place for a central gathering house. The Sisters had also hoped to reach other Alaska Native groups. By 1960, they opened their community in Fairbanks. During their time there, they developed close friendships with neighbors and some of the “old-timers.”
In November 1974, a violent storm destroyed the King Island village, including the Sisters‘ home, forcing its citizens and the Sisters to be scattered elsewhere. The Sisters adapted. The King Islanders had their traditional spring and summer hunting and fishing camp at Wooley Lagoon, 40 miles northwest of Nome. In 1979, the Sisters started to spend the summer with them.
As Anchorage grew, their friends from Nome and Diomede visited for medical treatment and shopping. Many had moved there. In 1988, the Sisters decided to follow the Sisters‘ friends there so they could stay in touch.
While in Anchorage, the Sisters met Alaska Natives from other parts of the state. The Sisters’ focus changed with their presence in a multi-ethnic parish and everchanging work environment.
As years passed, the sisters of the community grew older and fewer people joined. Eventually, the Sisters were forced to sell their Diomede home in 2004, and then the Nome house in 2014. The Sisters considered it a heartbreaking decision.
The dedication of the first Sisters to the Native people and the welcome and friendship they received helped them to endure and persevere through the hardships and isolation of the first years. With the people, they built the communities in all sense of the word, even becoming carpenters to build their own houses.
Wherever they were sent, the Sisters adopted the lifestyle of the people among whom they lived, learning from their culture and language.
In Nome and Diomede, they adopted the subsistence lifestyle of the people. The villagers shared walrus and seal meat with them. With the women, they learned to care for the meat and skins; to sew the skins and do beadwork; to fish through the ice for crab and fish; to gather greens and berries. Then, in turn, they helped the women with some of their work and often sewed for them.
The Sisters also did unskilled jobs to share in the working conditions of ordinary people and to support themselves financially. They held various jobs throughout the years. Sisters found work cleaning houses, hotels, and offices. And some have worked in laundries, hospitals, stores, and printing shops as caregivers or office workers.
The Sisters take an active part in their parishes. In Diomede, due to the extreme isolation, they helped women prepare children for their first communion. Both in Nome and Diomede, they helped lead Sunday liturgies when there were no priests.
Little Sisters have historically been members of different nationalities, races, and backgrounds, a sign of their desire to bring unity and harmony among people in their respective communities. Though the firstSisters were all from France, others came later from the United States, Japan, Switzerland, and Sri Lanka. Currently, a group of six sisters is still present in Anchorage — Sisters Damien Hoeh, Nobu Teresawa, Alice Sullivan, Nirmala Soysa, Yoshie Takaoka, and Monique Theurillat.
Three of the older sisters live at the Anchorage Pioneer Home: Sisters Alice, Damiene, and Nobu. The other three live in a house in the Airport Heights neighborhood in Anchorage, and they belong to St Anthony’s Parish. Sister Yoshie is the only one still holding a job as a housekeeper at Providence Alaska Medical Center, and she devotes much of her time to Alaska Native ministry. Sisters Monique and Nirmala are retired from paid work.
All six sisters continue to lead a contemplative life, being a presence of friendship and prayer among the people, believing that their lives can be a sign of hope and healing.
Editor’s note: For more information, Sister Alice Sullivan’s book, “History of the Little Sisters of Jesus in Alaska,” can be obtained at St. Paul’s Corner inside the Holy Family Old Cathedral building in Anchorage.