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Sister Pauline Fortin: Celebrating 65 years of 'Yes!' to Christ

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Sister Pauline's religious journey began as an elementary school teacher in the North Shore towns of Amesbury and Salem. Soon thereafter, she found herself assigned to an African country -- what is now called Djibouti.

Maureen Crowley
Heil

Growing up in Kingston, Rhode Island, Sister Pauline Fortin remembers being a sixth-grade student in what she called "Sunday School" when she first heard God speak to her heart. She felt him calling her to religious life. Young Pauline did not have to look far for an example of what it meant to give her life to God; her aunt, Bertha, and her sister, Jeanne, had already made the same decision and joined the Sisters of Ste. Chretienne.

She followed suit and on the feast of the Assumption, Aug. 15, 1955, she entered the convent in Giffard, Quebec, following in the footsteps of her aunt and sister. No one was more pleased than Sister Pauline that, on Aug. 16, 2020, her current family, the parishioners of St. Anne, Salem, gathered as Bishop Arthur Kennedy presided over the renewal of her vows on the 65th anniversary of her original profession.

Sister Pauline's religious journey began as an elementary school teacher in the North Shore towns of Amesbury and Salem. Soon thereafter, she found herself assigned to an African country -- what is now called Djibouti.

Sister speaks in practical terms about her time in Africa. "We went over to help the women, the girls, because in those days, the government didn't let the girls into school. So, we started a school for the girls, and I was teaching home economics, sewing, childcare, cooking," she recalled.

Sister Pauline's current pastor, Father Maurice Agbaw-Ebai, administrator of St. Anne Parish, has a different, more personal take on the witness of Sister Pauline's life and work. Father Agbaw-Ebai is a priest from the Diocese of Mamfe, Cameroon. He is here in the Archdiocese of Boston studying and will most likely return home to help form future diocesan priests in his native country.

In thanking Sister Pauline at the celebration, Father Agbaw-Ebai said, "65 years ago, you said 'yes' to the Lord, and became, for the Church and the world, a servant of Jesus Christ. You followed the Lord in faith, not knowing where your 'yes' would lead. It even took you to Africa, where you brought the Good News to the people of Djibouti, East Africa. As an African, we thank you for your many years of missionary work in Africa. Do you sometimes think of how you going to Djibouti forever changed the course of the lives of the girls you educated, and subsequently, their families? You, your sisters, and other missionaries, by bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Africa, brought not just a spiritual liberation, but human emancipation as well. This is one of the untold stories of our times: the stories of the missionaries in Africa."

Sister Pauline came back to Salem and returned to school -- this time, as a student. She received her degree in business administration and worked at then-Salem State College in the Financial Department. She was part of that school family for 25 years before "retiring" to more service.

As it turns out, Sister Pauline is also handy with a hammer!

She has long been a volunteer for the local Habitat for Humanity and put her skills to work for a group called Nuns Build. She is very happy about her work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Sister Pauline shared with her order's newsletter that, "For my first (build), we were about 70 people, mostly Sisters and friends and family from 17 states and Canada, working at 7 different sites. Most of us Sisters were in our 60's and 70's. The first morning, my group had our orientation at the house of a single mother of two children who were still in Texas but were eager to get home. Her family had lived in this house for four generations. However, it had suffered severe water damage. We were given various tasks: insulation, prep work for drywall and putting up the drywall. This last job was given to my crew. Our workday went from 9:00 to 3:00, but we often extended that in order to finish up a task. What can be accomplished in just 5 days? We got all the insulation done; almost all the drywall up (4' by 12' sheets) including on the ceilings. Our supervisor was very pleased; she didn't expect us to be half as advanced!"

These days, when she is not serving funerals, daily and weekend Masses, and wherever else she is needed at St. Anne's, Sister Pauline can be found working as a front-line employee at the local Market Basket as a cashier. This is in keeping with her philosophy that you must change with the times and meet people where they are.

May we all take a page from Sister Pauline's book, and the motto of the Sisters of Ste. Chretienne, "The Gospel of Christ Impels us!" In Sister Pauline's words, "I am proud being a Sister of St. Chretienne and serving God's people in the best way I can."

- Maureen Crowley Heil is Director of Programs and Development for the Pontifical Mission Societies, Boston.



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