Grey Nun Sister Theresa Rousseau reflects on 70 years of religious life

LEXINGTON -- On May 2, the formal dining room of the Youville Place assisted living facility in Lexington played host to one-fifth of the entire population of Sisters of Charity of Montreal in the U.S. -- both of them.

There are only 10 Sisters of Charity, widely known as the Grey Nuns for their traditional habits, left in the U.S. All of them live in Massachusetts, eight at Youville Place and two in Lawrence. Youville Place was once the provincial house of the Grey Nuns, but as their numbers dwindled, it grew too big for them, and it became an assisted living facility. Ninety-two-year-old Sister Theresa Rousseau, who recently celebrated her 70th jubilee year, came to Youville Place in 2010, accompanying a companion who needed round-the-clock care. Sister Marcia Wiley, who also lives at Youville Place, has known Sister Theresa for four years as a "delightful" conversation partner.

"Theresa is gentle, kind, considerate, giving, attentive, a listener, prayerful, faithful, and for me, a witness of growing old gracefully," Sister Marcia told The Pilot. "I shouldn't say 'growing old.' I should say, 'being an elder gracefully.'"

Whether Sister Theresa is getting her nails trimmed or knitting baby clothes and hats for the homeless, she regales Sister Marcia with wisdom from her 70 years of religious life.

"If I have the honor to live to the 90s, I hope I can be myself like she is herself," Sister Marcia said.

Sister Theresa told The Pilot that she has "no idea" how she made it to 92 years of age.

"I never thought I would," she said. "But it's my trust and faith in God, every day, that gives me the ability to go from day to day and do whatever I have to do."

Much of Sister Theresa's religious life was spent at Mary Immaculate Nursing/Restorative Center in Lawrence, caring for elderly Grey Nuns and others. When she first started visiting the nursing home in 1979, almost 300 people resided there. Sister Theresa was responsible for helping them move in and adjust to their new home, keeping them company, and assisting them wherever necessary.

"It was rewarding and very encouraging," Sister Theresa said.

Barbara Walsh, a lay leader at Youville Place, has known Sister Theresa for almost a decade. Once a week, they would visit Mary Immaculate together. Walsh would watch Sister Theresa sit down and have compassionate conversations, delighting in what residents had to say and sharing news from outside the nursing home.

"She's very gentle, just talking to them, interested in them," Walsh told The Pilot. "When you're in a nursing home, you're kind of lonely no matter how many visitors you get, but she was always good about seeing them ... They would always be very happy to see her."

Sister Theresa was the middle of nine children born in South Ashburnham. Her father worked in a furniture factory until his doctor warned him that the amount of sawdust he was inhaling would someday kill him. He moved the family to a farm in New Hampshire where they raised horses, cows, and pigs. Sister Theresa did not do farm work, besides helping to plant and weed the garden. She was responsible for caring for her younger siblings.

"I would say it was a wonderful experience," she said. "I didn't realize it as I grew up, but now, as I look back, I realize how grateful we should be for what was given to us on the farm. My father was a man of faith and he trusted in divine providence to take care of us."

Life on the farm was "survival from day to day," but during hard times, her father would always say: "God will provide."

"He did," Sister Theresa said. "We always had someone there that came to our rescue and helped. It was very common in those days. Neighbors helped each other. If we needed help, they were there for us."

Sister Theresa's vocation began when she was eight years old and receiving her First Communion. A woman asked her if she was going to have a party to celebrate. Sister Theresa didn't know how to explain that her parents could not afford such a celebration. Just then, a sister stepped in and said: "Her mother has a lot of things that are more important than that." The sister spared Sister Theresa from embarrassment.

"And at that point, I said, 'I want to be like that sister one day and help people in need,'" she remembered.

Her father worked hard to ensure that she and her siblings could attend Catholic school up to eighth grade. Her older brothers attended an out-of-town public high school, but didn't want Sister Theresa to go there because "it didn't offer too much." Her eldest brother worked in a textile mill so she could attend a boarding school in Canada run by the Sisters of the Assumption. After she graduated, the sisters wanted Sister Theresa to join their order. Her father refused, saying that he wanted her daughter to go to work and "learn what it is to earn a dollar" first.

After working for a year, she joined the Grey Nuns in Nashua, New Hampshire. Her first assignment was at an orphanage there, supervising the children and "making sure they didn't fight with each other."

The Sisters of the Assumption were best known for their teaching, and Sister Theresa was not interested in being a teacher. The Grey Nuns, however, operated schools, orphanages, nursing homes, and hospitals.

"I saw that the Grey Nuns offered more opportunities to choose from," Sister Theresa said.

She enjoyed wearing the Grey Nuns' iconic habit, and was one of the last to discard it after the Second Vatican Council.

"It was the trend," she said, "so I adjusted to it and relied that God would help me through it. Because I relied on the Lord for a lot of things."

Sister Theresa worked in orphanages in Nashua and Worcester, where she later became an accountant until she retired and went to serve at Mary Immaculate. Nowadays, she still keeps up a daily routine. She wakes up and goes to Mass in the Youville Place chapel every morning, then spends the rest of the day exercising and knitting. She also enjoys going to concerts at Youville Place and attending the weekly singalongs there. She talks on the phone once a week with one of her two surviving brothers. The other, who lives in New Hampshire, visits her often.

Looking back on her 70 years of religious life, Sister Theresa simply said: "I had a lot of opportunities to help people."