Nuns look to resurrect old farm in order to help women

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By Erin Place

OTISFIELD—A mile down a dirt road, one side of woods gives way to a large open field with mountains as the backdrop and a looming white farmhouse with an almost equally as impressive attached barn. Inside the house, silent prayer requires four trips to the chapel daily. Outside in the former cattle barn, a dog boarding business is run.

The nuns at the Community of the Resurrection on Poplar Ridge Road in Otisfield want to build a new chapel and conference room off the back left side of their old farmhouse.
The nuns at the Community of the Resurrection on Poplar Ridge Road in Otisfield want to build a new chapel and conference room off the back left side of their old farmhouse.

Welcome to the Community of the Resurrection on Poplar Ridge Road in Otisfield.

Inside the eight-bedroom house resides four nuns, led by Sister Renata Camenzind, formerly of Switzerland, with a fifth sister on the way from Arizona. There’s one sister in a nursing home and another, a 93-year-old nun, now residing in an assisted living facility. They’re members of the Dominican Order, which is part of the Catholic Church. As part of their beliefs, the nuns take in women in need who would normally end up in a women’s shelter, those who have fallen on hard times in one way or another.

Currently, the sisters house two other women within the home, and Sister Renata received a call last Thursday morning from a mother who needs assistance for herself and her seven-year-old daughter. She says it will be tight fitting the mother and child in the unoccupied downstairs bedroom.

“If they have nothing else, they’re happy to have that,” Sister Renata says, her accent thick from the old country.

And the nuns want to help more women. Since the sisters began taking in women in 1992—a year after the Community of the Resurrection was founded—they’ve witnessed an uptick in the number of women needing their help and staying longer. Sister Renata says in years past, the women in need would live in the convent for usually three months. With this sort of schedule, they could help more people and spread their resources. Now, Sister Renata says, many stay upwards of a year.

While the nuns provide room and board for the women, there are stipulations. Sister Renata says that if the women have jobs, the sisters ask that they have transportation to work and appointments, since the house is so far out in the country. If they have a problem with drugs or alcohol, they have the continue their counseling and go to meetings.

“They [have to] try to make something out of their lives and not sit here and do nothing,” Sister Renata says.

This is part of the reason for plans for a new chapel and renovations on the house. Sister Renata says they’d like to assist at least four women at once, and transform the current chapel, which is located off the kitchen closest to the barn, into two new bedrooms and bathrooms. This would free up the other downstairs bedroom for the nuns’ guests and family who want to visit.

Preliminary plans for the new chapel would attach it to the back left side of the house, situated in the sunshine, protected from the wind and in plain view of New Hampshire’s famous Mount Washington and the smaller surrounding White Mountains, Sister Renata says. Beneath the chapel they want to build a new conference room to hold their monthly meetings with the local lay people of the Dominican Order (around 25 in all), retreats from church groups in Norway, South Paris, Brighton and Christian Women United, and allow other groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, to use the space. They’re trying to figure out the costs and funds needed for the much-needed project.

Sister Renata Camenzind of the Community of the Resurrection in Otisfield stands on the back porch of the convent last week.
Sister Renata Camenzind of the Community of the Resurrection in Otisfield stands on the back porch of the convent last week.

“With 25 people in the living room, it’s just too tight,” Sister Renata says about their current meeting room in the house. “It will be so much better if we have a room where they can comfortably sit instead of [being] squeezed in together.”

The nuns attend Mass every day but rarely in their chapel as Catholic priests are becoming increasingly few and far between. Two days a week, the small group travels to Windham to go to church, and also spend time in Norway’s St. Catherine’s Church and churches in Bridgton and Mechanic Falls.

“We go wherever there is Mass,” Sister Renata says.

And the local people come to them to board their dogs. The nuns first arrived in 1991, after looking for a place large enough to support their small community, but also one they could afford. They scoured all over Massachusetts—where Sister Renata was living at the time—New Hampshire, Vermont, other spots in Maine and even property in Upstate New York. She recalls her reservations of traveling over hill and dale in the deep woods on their way to check out the Otisfield property—until their vehicle emerged from the woods.

“To see that all in front of you that’s just gorgeous,” Sister Renata says about the view from the old farm. “We all fell in love with it.”

As for the dog boarding, the nuns were looking for a way to make a living from home when a woman asked the sisters if they could watch her dog, Sister Renata remembers. They had a large porch they could use in the summer, but come winter that first year, the dogs went inside with the nuns. It was too difficult for the sisters to share their bedrooms with the furry creatures, so they modified the large barn to host seven kennels.

And they never advertised their dog boarding services, it grew and grew by word of mouth, Sister Renata says. During the off season, they usually house up to three dogs in the kennel, but there’s some days where there’s no dogs staying next to the convent. Their busiest time is during the summer and around the holidays, when people are more apt to travel.

Sister Renata opens the kennels to reveal two docile Shih Tzus sharing one space and a shy white Alaskan husky named Maya, who looks up from the floor with big brown eyes.

“They don’t act like this when their owners arrive,” Sister Renata says. Smiling, she waves her arm back and forth vigorously. “The tails go like this.”

She points to large windows that allow in plenty of sunlight and a view to the grounds below.

“They’re in their happy place here,” she says.

Maya’s owner died and she’s currently living in the kennel, but Sister Renata and the other nuns would like to see her adopted so she’s not stuck inside the barn for the rest of her life, though they do exercise the dogs in their care four times a day. Anyone interested in meeting and/or adopting Maya can call the Community of the Resurrection at 627-7184.

eplace@advertiserdemocrat.com