“Jesus has always been my best friend.”
“The Lord said, ‘Go.’ And I said, ‘Who? Me?’ And He said, ‘Yes, you.”
That is how Sister Theresa “Terry” Gauvin, SCIM, describes the beginning of her 54 years of religious life with the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, also known as the Good Shepherd Sisters of Quebec.
“Not bad for someone who said she never wanted to be a nun,” she says.
It would be just one of many conversations Sister Terry would have with God through the years as He guided her down paths she never envisioned herself taking.
“This is how God works in my life,” she says. “I have long said that God plays tricks on me to do His bidding.”
But Sister Terry, who is now provincial of the sisters’ American province, will be the first to admit that God’s so-called tricks have just about always resulted in ministries that have been treats, ones that enriched her life and the lives of those around her.
“One of my prayers every day is to be God’s instrument of whatever He wants me to be to whomever and to always have a grateful heart,” she says. “I feel that to be grateful for whatever you have and to have a joy-filled spirit is important.”
Sister Terry has always strived to bring that spirit of joy to others, whether she was working with children with emotional disabilities; young, unwed mothers; Catholic school students; children and teens in faith formation and youth ministry; or, more recently, women being served by St. André Home’s CourageLIVES, Maine’s first residential and outpatient treatment program for survivors of human trafficking and exploitation.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I would do what I have done,” she says. “It is the community that has led me to all these wonderful places that I’ve ministered in, all these beautiful, wonderful people whom I have met and connections that I have made.”
For the many ways Sister Terry has brought the light of Christ to others, she was recently named one of eight finalists for the Lumen Christi Award. Presented by the Catholic Extension Service, the award honors people from across the United States who have demonstrated how the power of faith can transform lives and communities. Sister Terry says being named a finalist, which carries with it a $10,000 grant, left her nearly speechless.
“This is another way that God has blessed me and, through me, CourageLIVES and our women,” she says. “How wonderful to be able to give CourageLIVES this much-needed donation and exposure.”
Sister Terry says she hesitated to let her name be submitted for the award, only agreeing to it because of the attention it could bring to CourageLIVES. Those whose lives she’s touched say it’s well-deserved recognition.
“Sister Terry’s support for women, for families, and for survivors of trafficking, domestic abuse, and sexual violence is tremendous,” says Carey Nason, executive director of St. André Home. “It’s like she’s become this bright spot in their lives. The women at the house know her. They know her by name. They view her as an ally, as a support, which she very much is.”
"Sister Terry has allowed girls like me to have a second chance at life. I appreciate and am thankful for everything she has done,” says Theresa Dumond, a woman at the CourageLIVES residence.
"Sister Terry's work has meant the world to me. She is a strong and amazing woman,” says Hilda Call, another woman at CourageLIVES.
Sister Terry served as interim director of St. André Home from 2017 to 2019, during which time CourageLIVES became St. André’s primary ministry. Sister Terry would visit the residence, offering counseling, guidance, and prayers for the women and staff. Although she can no longer stop by due to the pandemic, she continues to be involved as director of mission effectiveness and as a member of the marketing committee.
“She has been a true champion for survivors. Sister Terry is full of energy and full of ideas. I really appreciate the ways that she’s been creative to help support St. André Home and to help support CourageLIVES and the way she helps continue the mission of serving women and children in need,” says Carey. “She lives, eats, breathes, thinks, prays the mission and that comes through.”
“It continues our charism as Good Shepherd Sisters, helping women and families,” says Sister Terry. “It’s who we are as Good Shepherd Sisters. It’s part of our DNA as they say.”
That may be a particularly fitting saying in Sister Terry’s case since the Good Shepherd Sisters have been part of her life since before she was born. The sisters founded St. André Home in Biddeford in 1940 to serve unwed mothers, offering prenatal care, as well as counseling and schooling. A few years later, the home also began providing medical care to pregnant, married women. Sister Terry and one of her brothers were born there.
Sister Terry describes her mother as a deeply religious woman, saying she learned her prayers at her mother’s knees.
“I have that so visually in my head. My mother is sitting on the couch, and my two older brothers and myself are around her on the floor, and she was teaching us our prayers. She was a very holy woman, very spiritual. I used to say to her, ‘Mom, you should have been the nun.’”
Sister Terry says her mother taught her many valuable lessons, including the importance of accepting everyone, regardless of their religion, race, or lifestyle, and the importance of talking to God from your heart, sharing your concerns, fears, and gratitude with Him. She says that is how Jesus became so dear to her.
“My mother really instilled faith in us, so Jesus has always been my best friend. I don’t remember when I never talked to Him all throughout the day, even more so today. He was my friend, so I would always say, ‘OK, Lord, help me with this’ or ‘guide me with that,’” she says.
Inspired by her friendship with God and by the Good Shepherd Sisters who were her teachers at St. Joseph School in Biddeford, Sister Terry says she thought about becoming a nun when she was a young girl.
“I saw the sisters and how they seemed happy, and they had given their life to God, so I thought, maybe that’s what I needed to do,” she says.
However, during her teen years, her thoughts turned more towards the possibility of marriage and having a family. When the sisters approached her about pursuing a religious vocation, she says she used the excuse of having to help her mother, because her father had recently passed away. She says she knew, however, that her mother was quite independent. While the sisters stopped asking, her best friend was more persistent.
After graduating from high school, she got a job where she often had time alone. She remembers spending some of it in prayer.
“I would just talk to Him, and entering the convent kept coming back, and I kept pushing it away. Then one day, on Christmas Eve, I was at midnight Mass, and it was really strong. Then one night after that, I couldn’t sleep, and I said to the Lord, ‘Alright, I’ll try it. Leave me alone.’ The next morning, I said, ‘Oh, it was just a dream,’ but at this point, I said I really need to look at this because God is calling me,” she says. “I wanted to be married and have kids, having that special relationship, but yet, my relationship with God was stronger. I wanted to spend more time with God and to serve in whatever ways He wanted me to.”
Sister Terry says she hesitated because she was not a good student in school and did not consider herself to be “nun material, whatever that is.” God, of course, knew better.
She entered the order at age 20, and four years later, as a second year junior professed sister, was assigned to work at St. Ann’s Home in Methuen, Mass., a residential treatment facility for children with emotional disabilities and behavioral issues.
“You’re helping these kids get to know who they are and helping them to overcome whatever emotional issues they’re dealing with. Now, we didn’t do it alone. We were the house mothers, but we had social workers and therapists,” she says. “We gave them TLC, tender loving care. We fed them. We clothed them, but it was the social workers and the therapists who did the emotional and psychological work.”
While at St. Ann’s, she began taking courses at Merrimack College in North Andover, leading to bachelor’s degrees in sociology and psychology. At age 28, she professed her final vows.
She says the work at St. Ann’s was emotional and exhausting, and it left her little time for prayer, something she missed. Unsure what to do, she went on a 30-day retreat, asking the Lord for guidance.
“I kept saying to the Lord, ‘What do I do?’ It was a very hard decision, but I decided to go back to Maine,” she says. “I had this desire within me to have a deeper relationship with God, and I didn’t want to teach, so the only other place was to come here where I could continue my social work.”
It would mean a return to her roots in more ways than one. In the 1970s, when the sisters were seeking to transition St. André into smaller group homes, Sister Terry’s mother, who was then working for the sisters, agreed to sell her 13-room Biddeford home to them for that purpose. It was there that Sister Terry began her next ministry, helping unwed mothers.
“I came to St. Andre’s and worked in my old home,” she says. “I was in charge of having teachers come in to do schooling, so they could continue their high school.”
She says, however, that she found the pace so much slower than her previous work that she began to grow restless. She started volunteering as a tutor at St. Joseph School on her day off. The next thing she knew, she was thinking about teaching, something she had vowed she would never do.
“That is how God works in my life. I started to say, ‘Well, you could teach,’ because I realized teaching wasn’t just teaching subjects. It was having a relationship with the kids and doing things,” she says.
She decided to teach junior high students for one year to see if it was a good fit. The next year, a fifth-grade teacher was needed, so she stayed on. She would end up teaching at the school for 11 years and then served as principal for the next five.
“As principal, I really used my social work skills,” she says. “When a kid comes to your office because she or he has done whatever, I always made sure that the kids knew that they had done something wrong and they knew what the consequences were, but that they also knew there was something they could do to make it better.”
Sister Terry left in 1992 after the three Biddeford Catholic schools merged. She took a temporary position doing youth ministry at St. John the Evangelist Church in South Portland and added some counseling work at Catholic schools in Portland and Lewiston, before being approached by the provincial about becoming principal of Sacred Hearts School in Bradford, Mass. Although it was a position she originally wasn’t keen about taking, she would spend a decade there, making connections that she still treasures today.
Sister Terry next served at Central Catholic High School in Lawrence, Mass., first splitting time between teaching religion and campus ministry and then becoming a full-time campus minister. After seven years there, she became faith formation director at St. Patrick Church in nearby Pelham, N.H., a position she held for three years before returning to Maine, where, just two months later, in August 2015, she was named provincial.
It was a time transition for the sisters, who are aging, and for St. André Home, which would close the last of its group homes and turn its focus to CourageLIVES.
“We couldn’t ignore human trafficking. So, we said, ‘How can we do this?’ she says. “We did it with help.”
That help included a startup grant from the Next Generation Foundation, contributions from other religious communities including the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, money from the annual Catholic Appeal, medical care from St. Joseph Healthcare in Bangor, low-rent office space and marketing assistance from Catholic Charities Maine, and lots of individual donations.
“It’s $100 here, $10 there,” she says. “Everything comes together in pieces and forms a home and a family for our women.”
Still, not being large enough to attract major grants or federal dollars, money is tight, putting a strain on the sisters’ foundation.
“Right now, we don’t have enough funding, so the community is supporting it with our foundation, but that is dwindling, especially in the pandemic,” she says.
That is why the $10,000 grant that came with being a Lumen Christi Award finalist was so welcome.
“Some of these women come to us with no teeth or their jaws broken. They need glasses. They haven’t had their medical needs met by their traffickers, so we send them to the dentist and for care. Well, that’s not in our budget,” she says.
In addition to CourageLIVES, Sister Terry does her best to support the work of Sister Joanne Roy, the director of Esther Residence, a transitional program for women who are leaving incarceration. As provincial, she also tries to uplift the sisters living at St. Joseph Convent in Biddeford. She shares reflections and puts together monthly news briefs to keep them up to date on what’s going on and often posts cartoons and cheerful greetings on her bulletin board.
Sister Terry says the pandemic has been difficult for the sisters because most of them don’t go out, and now, visitors can’t come in.
“Our staff is wonderful, but that’s it. There is no stimulation from other people, and we can’t celebrate together,” she says. “Thank God we have our faith because it’s God now we turn to. We pray more. We spend more time with the Lord.”
That is something Sister Terry sets aside time for every morning.
“After I get up and make my bed, I pray for an hour or so. I have a cup of coffee with the Lord. Because I’m not a morning person, I’m the quietest then, so He has a chance to get His two cents in. Otherwise, I’m on,” she says, laughing.
Included in her prayers are the many she’s met through her years of ministry.
“It’s people who are in my life who are the biggest blessings,” she says. “They have kept me happy and fulfilled.”