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Sibling Servants

“Give your all and God gives you one hundredfold.”

Time and time again, that is what Sister Linda Mae Plourde says she has found throughout her years as a Sister of the Presentation of Mary.

“My vocation brought me into intimacy with God. I’ve always felt drawn to have a very close tie with Christ,” she says. “He journeys with me constantly.”

Her younger brother James (Jim) feels similarly about his vocation to the priesthood.

“It means everything. To me, it’s about preaching the Gospel and living the Gospel,” he says. “It’s an honor and privilege is what it is, plain and simple.”

Father Jim and Sister Linda Mae are both marking milestones this year. Father Jim was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Portland in Caribou 35 years ago, and Sister Linda Mae professed first vows 50 years ago in Hudson, N.H.  This May, she returned to the same chapel for a golden jubilee celebration.  Father Jim, who was a teenaged altar server at the Mass in 1967, was the main celebrant at the jubilee Mass.

“We give thanks to God for this moment, for this celebration of ministry to the Gospel, to the Lord Jesus, and to His people.  It is reason to rejoice," he said, during his homily. “We thank you for your witness. We thank you for your faith.”

Sister Linda Mae and Father Jim both attribute their vocations to the presence of God in their lives at an early age.  They point to their parents, their teachers, and one special priest.

“My parents were the first influences. They were deeply pious and religious people,” says Father Jim. “They were deeply committed to the Church, and the faith, and their prayer life.”

Sister Linda Mae says her dad was especially an influence in her life.  Five years older than her brother Jim, she recalls when her father invited her to accompany him to Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. She was only age six or seven at the time and remembers being mesmerized by the incense, the monstrance, and the cope worn by the priest.  Most of all, she was struck by what she saw in her father.

“He was so fixated there. His face was peaceful, and I knew something special was happening. So, on the way back, I asked, ‘Dad, what do you do over at church? What’s it all about? He said, ‘You talk to God. You listen to Him, and you talk to God,’” she recalls.

As time went on, Sister Linda Mae says she knew what she wanted to ask of God. “I said to God, ‘I would like to have what Dad has.’”

The family prayed the rosary regularly. Even on Christmas, when the children were anxious to open their gifts, their father insisted on first praying the rosary. Their father also stressed the importance of remembering to thank God.

“He said, ‘Always give thanks to God for the littlest thing because He is with us all the time. Don’t ever miss a day without saying at least one thank you,’” Sister Linda Mae says.

The family had six children, and money was often tight, but their parents never failed to be as generous as possible, offering hospitality to all who stopped by and never failing to contribute to the Church.

“My father always kept a little brown envelope in the dresser drawer in his bedroom, and that was the money for the church,” recalls Father Jim. “I remember once, my mother and my father having a conversation about lacking a little bit of cash this week. What are we going to do? And my mother suggested that we may have to go to the brown envelope, and he said, ‘Oh, no. We’re not going to the brown envelope. If we go to the brown envelope, we’re only going to have more financial problems, not less.’ So, the brown envelope never got touched.”

Although Sister Linda Mae was born in Fort Kent, the family moved to Caribou when she was age 3.  There, she and her siblings attended Holy Rosary School, where the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary were teachers.  They would have a profound effect on the family’s eldest children.

“At first, I was afraid of the sisters.  I had seen them walking in church, but Dad would say, ‘Look how happy those sisters are.  You would think that they didn’t have a problem in the world, but you can be sure that they have their problems.’ He said, ‘They’re happy, and they’re always together.’ That always struck me,” says Sister Linda Mae.

Having them as teachers affirmed what her father had told her.

“They were so joyful, and besides that, they would play with us in the schoolyard. That told me a lot, too. They got down to where we were and took us from where we were,” she says. “They reached out with motherly care, especially for students who were struggling with learning.”

Father Jim says that even though Mass at their convent was at 6 a.m., he always signed up to be an altar server.

“Especially in the winter months, I would hear the radiators banging, but you could hear the sisters chanting their office in the morning. To me, that was just the most uplifting thing that I had ever experienced,” he says. “There was something about that that was very powerful.”

“There was just something about them. When they taught religion, it was like a holy hour,” says Sister Linda Mae. “It felt very rich. It felt very peaceful. And I wanted to be like that. I remember wanting to be like them and to help children.”

Both Sister Linda Mae and Father Jim say they thought about religious vocations at a young age. Sister Linda Mae remembers her brother’s definitive answer at age 9 or 10, when a worker in the potato fields asked what he wanted to be when he got older.

“He said, ‘I’m going to be a priest!’ Clear, like that,” she says.

Their vocations got a boost from Father Leopold Nicknair, a priest at Holy Rosary Parish.  Sister Linda Mae says in the eighth grade, at a time when she was doubting her aptitude for teaching, Father Nicknair not only gave her assurances but asked if she would assist the teacher in the second-grade religious education class.

“He put me in a setup. She was pregnant, and he knew she wouldn’t be able to finish,” she says. “That’s what got me going. I took over the teaching of CCD at the first Communion class, and I loved it.”

When he was in the eighth grade, Father Jim recalls listening in on a conversation between his parents and Father Nicknair.

“I went upstairs because we had a hot air furnace, and I could hear what was going on.  He said to my parents, ‘I think your son has a vocation to the priesthood, and I would like to send him away to a private seminary, a high school seminary.’”

His father told Father Nicknair that, while the family would be honored to have a priestly vocation, there were two issues to consider: whether Jim wanted to go and the cost.

“Father Nicknair said, ‘You take care of the first problem; I’ll take care of the second problem.’”

Father Jim says he was thrilled, and true to his word, Father Nicknair found benefactors to pay for tuition. At age 13, he left for Our Lady of Lourdes Seminary, an Assumptionist School in Cassadaga, N.Y.

“That was just terrific. It was really a monastic lifestyle,” Father Jim says. “It just suited my ways tremendously because we had strong education.”

His departure came just one year after his older sister left to discern her vocation.  Torn between religious life and accounting school, she accepted the suggestion of the convent superior to live with the sisters for a six-month period, in which she would be able to experience their way of life.  She says it made the choice an easy one.

“There was something that settled in me there.  It must have been God’s Spirit,” she says. “I loved the experience.”

Sister Linda Mae professed her first vows on August 15,1967. It was only then that her father showed her a note, which he had carried with him since WWII.  He and fellow soldiers had taken refuge at a convent in Belgium, and as they were leaving, he asked one of the sisters to pray for his pregnant wife.  She not only assured him that his wife would be fine but told him that he would have a daughter and that she would be given to God, writing it down on construction paper.

“It was pretty mangled by the time he showed it to me. He didn’t want me to know about it until I made my vows,” she says.

Her brother’s path to the priesthood took a while longer. Following Vatican II, there was a move away from high school seminaries, and the one in Cassadaga closed.  The boys were sent to a prep school in Worcester, Mass., but Father Jim says it was not nearly as welcoming, and he returned home, where he finished high school and then attended tech school.  He worked in youth ministry, as a disc journey, and then took a job as an electronics technician in Millinocket.

“I always credit Mount Katahdin for my vocation.  I used to do a lot of hiking in the park when I lived in Millinocket, most of the time all alone. I had this one particular day when I was going to the top. It was one of those perfectly, crystal clear days. I got to the top, dug out my lunch, and as I sat there, I looked around and thought, ‘What an incredible balance and beauty this is. How could I be ignoring God in all of this?’”

At age 22, he entered St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Maryland, took a break after three years to further discern, then returned, this time to St. Paul University in Ottawa, a request he made so that he would be proficient in both English and French.

“I love studying theology.  I was really hooked, bigtime hooked. Anytime I had an opportunity to study theology, no matter where I was, I was a happy camper,” he says.

Father Jim was ordained on May 30, 1982. His assignments have taken him across the state. He is currently pastor of Notre Dame du Mont Carmel, Madawaska; Our Lady of the Valley, Saint Agatha; and St. Peter Chanel, Van Buren.

“You are with people at their key moments of their lives. That’s a real privilege,” he says. “What other profession in life gets to deal with birth, death, commitment.”

Most of Sister Linda Mae’s 50 years in religious life have been spent in education, first as a teacher and then a principal. She taught in Massachusetts, before returning to Maine where she served in Biddeford, Lewiston, Pittsfield, and Augusta.

“I loved it. I loved the children so much,” she says.

Sister Linda Mae says she always tried to connect learning with real-life experiences. She brought classes to the Portland Jetport and to city hall. She once invited politicians in for a game of ‘Jeopardy.’  When it came to teaching religion, she made it a family affair to ensure parents kept pace with their children.

Sister Linda Mae says her life as a Sister of the Presentation of Mary has been a blessing because it has allowed her to serve others.

“I believe something of my life touched other people’s lives because, whatever I do, it’s not me who did it; it’s really God who did it through me,” she says. “I’m just like a little instrument, letting God filter through me.”

But, she says, her own life has been greatly enriched as well.

“It’s breathtaking,” she says. “I’ve lived with authors, with artists, with musicians.  This is a wealth of experiences.”

As her father once counseled, life wouldn’t always be easy.  She has battled several medical problems and now is afflicted with muscular dystrophy.  She sees those struggles as a way of connecting her to the passion of Christ.

“We all have suffering in our lives, everybody does, but I think suffering made me strong,” she says. “There are both kinds of graces, agreeable and disagreeable, but they’re all graces, and the disagreeable, if you accept them, become agreeable.”

Her brother has faced challenges as well.  Nineteen years after his ordination, he began questioning his vocation. Among other things, he was concerned about the changing face of the priesthood amid parish mergers. He asked for a leave of absence, during which he took classes, earned a degree in clinical psychology, and then worked as a counselor.  After two years, away, however, he says he realized what he had given up.

“I missed parish life. I missed the people. I missed the whole spiritual cycle of the Church,” he says. “I had to be honest with myself and say, ‘You know what? All of this is certainly highlighting the fact that you’re already married and that you walked away from something that you really don’t want to walk away from.’”

He says his experiences while away didn’t draw him further from his vocation but closer to it and says he has never regretted returning to parish ministry.

“The challenges are great, but they’re not deadly. They’re not going to take away my enthusiasm for the priesthood, the Church, the Gospel,” he says. “People’s spiritual lives still need attending to. They still need to be nourished and strengthened.”

Father Jim and Sister Linda Mae say they have grown closer in recent years, bonding while visiting and caring for their parents, who both resided in southern Maine nursing homes at the end of their lives.

“I just marveled at the distances that man drove to visit, from Bucksport, from Calais,” she says. “James came into my life and into Mom’s life when it was most needed.”

Father Jim calls his sister the rock of their family, someone who never fails to acknowledge a birthday or anniversary and who has always exemplified what it means to live a simple lifestyle dedicated to Christ.

“Her prayer life, her spiritual writing has always been a teaching moment for me. Even when she writes me an anniversary card, it’s like being uplifted,” he says. “She is a woman of deep faith.”