After more than 60 years serving communities in the Bering Strait and Norton Sound, the Little Sisters of Jesus are leaving western Alaska.
Sister Alice Sullivan is among them. She’s worked in Alaska since 1960, when she first came up to work at the Holy Cross school. She continued working in Kaltag and then St. Mary’s before joining the Little Sisters in Fairbanks.
“A lot of people know me as the bird lady, because I love nature, I love the outdoors,” Sister Alice said. “I had been thinking a little about a religious vocation, but I didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk all my life.”
When she saw the kind of work the Little Sisters were doing in Alaska, she knew it was a good fit.
“Our community [the Little Sisters of Jesus] does not do the ordinary things people are used to having Catholic sisters do,” Sister Alice continued. “We don’t teach catechism, we don’t run hospitals. What we do is what Jesus did when he was walking the roads of Israel and Palestine. He was dealing with people individually. People who were sick, people who needed help. And that is how we accomplish our mission. We work with people on an individual level. But we choose very carefully the places we go to.”
One of those places was western Alaska. The first Little Sisters—three young French women who didn’t speak much English—came to Nome in 1952, to reach out to King Islanders, and, eventually, the people of Diomede.
Two groups of people that Sister Alice said are the very people the Little Sisters were founded to work with.
“They had been evangelized, but both populations were kind of dropped [after the priests had died or moved on], and nobody was paying attention to them because they were kind of hard to reach,” she recalled.
“Those are the kind of people we go to,” she said proudly. “People who are distant from the institutional church, from their lifestyle or where they live.”
Those first Little Sisters spent a winter in Nome before connecting with the King Islanders in the spring of 1952.
“The King Islanders welcomed them, and started teaching them how to live in the arctic,” Sister Alice said.
Then, in 1954, the first Sisters made it to Diomede.
“The people there welcomed them warmly,” she said. “At that time everybody lived in those semi-subterranean houses. And they had a small one for [the Sisters] all ready with what they needed”—things like a stove, a seal oil lamp, and a bucket of water from melted snow.
“It was very rough,” she laughed.
That home became the church in Diomede, where the Little Sisters baptized children, performed burials, and helped build the church community. “And every Sunday they would gather the people to listen to mass at KNOM.”
The Little Sisters’ work on Diomede and around Nome stretched from years to decades. Sister Alice recalled summers hunting at Wooly Lagoon with King Islanders, preparing sealskins on Diomede, and spending years admiring the birds that migrate through western Alaska every year.
But now, the time has come for the Little Sisters to leave.
“The whole culture has changed a lot, and we, Little Sisters, are getting older,” Sister Alice sighed.
In mid-July, Sister Alice and Sister Damiene will leave for Anchorage, while Sister Nirmala will spend some time at the Little Sister’s mother house in Rome. While the Sisters may be leaving their homes—and their communities—of the past few decades behind, Sister Alice said she values what she will take away from her time in western Alaska.
“I learned so much from the King Islanders, about how to respect the environment,” she said. “That’s the thing I’ll be taking away with me, this deep respect. I know when I go to Anchorage I am going to be keeping the issue of native rights [in mind], and be more involved, I would say, on a political level, in regards to environmental issues.”
A mass honoring the Little Sisters, past and present, is being held Tuesday, May 27 at 6:30 p.m. at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Nome. Eight Little Sisters—Sisters Alice, Laura Lee, Nirmala, Odette, Damiene, Monique, Nobu, and Yoshie—will be in attendance.
The Little Sisters will remain in Nome until mid-July. And then, like the birds Sister Alice has loved so much, the Little Sisters will make their own journey south.