Nuns dwindle from 50 to 1

August 30, 2002 12:00 am
Sister Daniel Therese conducted religious services at the nursing home and helped or visited with residents along with Sister Clare Inez, who also is leaving Baker City. Their departure leaves only one sister from their order in Baker City. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Sister Daniel Therese conducted religious services at the nursing home and helped or visited with residents along with Sister Clare Inez, who also is leaving Baker City. Their departure leaves only one sister from their order in Baker City. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By LISA BRITTON

Of the Baker City Herald

When St. Francis Academy and St. Elizabeth Hospital were open simultaneously in the 1900s, there were nearly 50 Catholic sisters in Baker City.

Now there's only three — and that number is shrinking to one.

Sisters Clare Inez Karp and Daniel Therese Coyle of the Franciscans of Philadelphia are leaving Baker City and moving to Tacoma, Wash., to continue their service in the church.

Sister Kay Marie Duncan still lives here, dividing her time between Baker City and Ontario.

These soft-spoken women don't appear to feel that their work is unique — to them, it's just what they do. They will continue on with their work as they leave for a new endeavor.

Sister Clare has spent a lot of time in Baker City. She was born here, left for 20 years and returned, for a total of 60 years.

Sister Daniel moved to Baker City in 1970. She is originally from Ireland, which didn't have any convents when she was growing up. She went through her first training in Mallow, Ireland, then she and six other girls went to Philadelphia, Pa., to continue their religious studies.

After she took her vows, she was sent west, first to teach in California, then to Pendleton and Baker.

Although Sister Daniel arrived in Baker after St. Francis Academy had been torn down, Sister Clare knew it well. She attended school there in the 1920s, by which time it had been established for over 30 years. She later returned to the school as a teacher.

While in Baker, these sisters have held a variety of jobs.

When Sister Clare came back to Baker, she taught at the Academy for two years in the late 1940s, and one year in the late 1950s. From 1955 to 1977 she traveled around the Baker Diocese and taught religious education.

"When I was home, I hung my hat in Baker," she said.

From 1970 to 1975, Sister Daniel worked in the chancery office as secretary to the marriage tribunal.

From the mid-70s to June 2002, both sisters worked at St. Elizabeth nursing home.

These two have seen a few changes in the Catholic Church during the time they've served as a sisters. The clothing of sisters has always been a distinguishing characteristic — flowing black and white habits that covered everything but the face.

"Now you dress appropriately for what you're doing," Sister Clare said. That could include anything from a variation of the traditional habit to casual attire.

"Sisters began simplifying their dress," Sister Daniel said. "Some sisters like ourselves have chosen to wear a veil and be recognized."

Since Baker City has always been fairly isolated from metropolitan areas, Sister Daniel said that they would attend community concerts in town, and sometimes go to a movie. However, the size and location of Baker may have contributed to the decreasing number of sisters.

"A lot of sisters are going into social work. They're not teaching anymore," Sister Daniel said.

"The work is more diversified," Sister Clare added.

When the Academy closed in June of 1970 after 85 years, many of the teaching jobs disappeared and sisters were reassigned.

Sister Clare still remembers how she felt when that piece of history crumbled to the ground.

"It was terrible. The steel ball would hit the wall and bounce off," she said, recalling the thick walls and wide hallways.

According to a 1980 history update of the Diocese of Baker, "the rising costs of operation and inadequate means of coping with them, coupled with decreasing enrollment" are what caused the school to close.

However, just at the time when one endeavor closed, another one arose. St. Elizabeth Hospital was opened at its present location, 3325 Pocahontas Road, in October 1970. Many sisters were already working at the hospital, which has been located at three different places in Baker City since it opened in 1897.

After the hospital was relocated, the site on Fourth Street was turned into a nursing home.

Twenty-two sisters worked at the nursing home and hospital during this time. They lived in a convent at Fifth and Madison streets, present location of Baker House, until St. Elizabeth Care Center opened in 1987 near the hospital.

Something else that has changed since these two joined the sisterhood is where they serve and work. Sister Daniel said that at the time when she took her vows, no one knew where they would be assigned.

"You did whatever the community wished you to do," she said.

Now it's a little different, and the sisters have a choice, but it still takes a lot of thought.

"Each sister prays, looks around for where she'd do the most good. Then you talk it over with your superiors," Sister Clare said.

After they move to Tacoma, the two will work at a retirement center.

Even though they look forward to a new mission, both sisters have enjoyed the time they've spent here.

"I love Baker. Not just because I was born here," Sister Clare said with a smile. "I love the beautiful mountains, especially when they have snow on them."