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Sisters of Promise

by Charles C. Cole

On June 27, 1978 a busload of cloistered nuns, Sisters of the Pious Promise, were on their way home from an annual weeklong retreat to a shrine in Canada when an inattentive friend of mine cut across their path on his newly repaired dirt bike. “Jess” was 19, fresh out of high school, with ambitions of making a name for himself in off-road racing. He was also high as a kite. He died on the scene, colliding with a massive 80-year old Norway pine.

The bus driver swerved, and his passengers dropped down one of the steepest ravines in the state of Maine. Sixteen nuns and the driver survived, miraculously, with only minor injuries. Four nuns, however, fell into a persistent catatonic state due to severe head trauma, a condition that lasted the rest of their lives.

By all reports, the nuns were sincerely devout and had planned for a long life of prayer and servitude. They ranged in age from mid-20s to late 30s. Sister Trini, the daughter of a migrant worker, had fallen in love with our state when joining her father one summer as a young girl.

Sisters Luna and Marcy were biological twin sisters who had known from middle school that their lives would be dedicated to helping others. Sister Margaret had committed herself to Jesus the same summer she had graduated from a private all-girls college with a major in Romance literature, her youthful adventures behind her.

Sister Margaret had come from a wealthy, supportive family. Following the accident, a beautiful convalescent home was built in her name, only a quarter-mile away from the tragic scene, on the eastern edge of Craggy Mountain with the best view of sunrise nature had to offer. A restaurant was built across the parking lot and religious tourists stopped, paid their respects, and left generous tips to support the Sisters of the Pious Promise Society.

The four nuns were cared for by dedicated locals who honestly felt their presence in our little town of five thousand souls would, ironically, lead to continued blessings and good fortune. There was even, briefly, a push to rename the town “Sisters.”

In the next thirty years, we never saw a murder or car chase or pot bust. One time Butch McKinney was run over by his own tractor, but he had just impregnated another man’s wife, so the accident seemed a “balancing of the books.”

Another time, Gus Whitley, who managed the bottle redemption center, fell asleep with a lit cigarette and “woke up dead” with the still-smoking frame of his former house down around his ankles: a sad, preventable accident of his own making.

Which leads me to the recent Patriots’ Day ice storm, county-wide power outages, and the death of Sister Trini, from complications traced back to her accident. Sister Margaret’s family found out about our local weather-related emergency, became alarmed and moved her closer to home. Our town suddenly had two fewer agents to advocate for our collective virtues to the Supreme Good.

Within a week of Sister Margaret leaving, a drunk tourist held up Hood’s Food and Fuel. Nobody was injured, but the community was spooked. A few months later, a long-time neighbor shot and killed an errant hiker, down off the Appalachian Trail, who had wandered into his marijuana garden.

In my experience, rural people in these parts, who lived humble, respectful existences with a polite nod to the Almighty once a week, took solace in the notion that bad things happened to “other” people, especially when several of God’s faithful servants were residents.

So how does one call in heavenly reinforcements? In our case, a popular retired priest, Father Tony, had a terrible fall at a local ski resort, only an hour away. When the accident made the news, it was late in the season, and the surface at the top of the run was icy and unpredictable. While he was still down and getting his bearing, a speeding six-year old athlete collided into him at more than twenty miles per hour.

The priest’s companions took nothing for granted, flying him by a rescue helicopter to the nearest hospital for tests. The boy was fine, having only suffered a chipped tooth. The priest was still in the ICU when he had a seizure. At some point he suffered a stroke. He would never ski again.

Our little town had the only “Christian nursing facility and retirement center” within three hours of the hospital. As a new boarder, he was a natural fit. He was not a stranger, as he had visited several times over the years. He was alert and pleasant and upbeat, though not very good at walking or talking.

You could see the local faces relax, once again free from worldly worries, at the gas station and Smitty’s Pizza Shack and the little restaurant on the hill. That was seven years ago. The priest’s recovery was not as fast or as thorough as initially projected, but his attitude was always cheerful and his smile was always beaming. And he had many visitors who stopped by, dining at the restaurant and leaving generous tips for the Sisters of the Pious Promise Society.

But Father Tony is getting on in years, having recently celebrated his 82nd birthday, and we all worry about future crimes and casualties. Hang in there, Father Tom.

Maybe there is no correlation between the number of religious “officers” in town and the peace we experience every year. Maybe we’re just small and tucked away. I used to think that. Now, as I get older, I’ve joined the ranks of my superstitious neighbors. I read the paper daily, searching for an article about someone who has fallen and can’t get up, someone who speaks to God more fluently than I can, someone needing a quaint village to call home.

And that’s why we like “Sisters.” It’s a quiet town, where all the people are good, and bad things happen only to those who deserve them.

Copyright © 2015 by Charles C. Cole

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