Sister Marcelle Odile
Claire Gagnon, SP
At 95 years old, Sister Claire Gagnon rises daily in Seattle at 5 a.m., and then walks outside as she says three rosaries, 15 minutes for each one. “That is what keeps me going,” said the tiny French-Canadian nun who still wears the modified habit of the Sisters of Providence.
After her walk it’s back upstairs to wait for breakfast in the third-floor infirmary. “I’m not here by choice, but I’m not unhappy either. My memory is like a sieve; everything goes through it,” she said with a twinkle in her eye and her ever-present warm smile.
She spends much of the day working hidden word puzzles in the French that was her language from her birth as Marie Claire Gagnon on August 12, 1919, on a farm in St. Prosper, Quebec. When her father died and her mother was left alone to care for seven children, she and her sister were sent to the Sisters of Providence orphanage at Trois Rivieres.
Started pastoral care department in Anchorage
Desiring to become a nurse, she entered the Sisters of Providence in 1938 at age 19 and made first profession in 1940. She was sent to Mount St. Vincent in Seattle to help in the infirmary and to learn English, and then to Sacred Heart School in Tacoma, Wash., as a cook. She went to nursing school at St. Elizabeth Hospital, Yakima, Wash., and later graduated from Seattle University with a bachelor’s degree in nursing. She served in hospitals as a nurse or nursing supervisor in Seattle, Tacoma, Walla Walla, Yakima and Portland before becoming an administrator for 13 years at St. Peter Hospital, Olympia.
In 1975, after studying clinical pastoral education at St. Mary Hospital, San Francisco, she started the pastoral care department at Providence Hospital in Anchorage, Alaska, caring for the spiritual needs of patients, their families and the staff.
A life of simplicity
She retired to Seattle in 2003, leaving behind memories of 28 years in Alaska and memories of outdoor adventures like cross-country skiing, marathon running, jogging and the Iditarod race.
“I live very simply and think simplicity. I don’t try to impress myself,” Sister Claire said, marveling at the photo of her in the traditional habit that was posted on her door to mark her Jubilee year. She thinks often of a very close French-speaking cousin, Rita Ebacher, from St. Anne de La Perade, which used to be Sister Claire’s home.
“I don’t miss it too much,” she said. “It has been a wonderful life. This is home until I go home. I am getting ready for home whenever the Lord says it is time. I hope it won’t be too long. The Lord will take me as I am because he made me that way.”