Native American woman serves her neighbors from Alaska to Maine

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Nestled in the arms of the Penobscot River in eastern Maine is a place called Indian Island. Today, it is home to more than 600 members of the Native American Penobscot Tribe. For more than 400 years, they have lived and worshipped as Catholics, a religion they adopted after the arrival of French missionaries in the early 1600s. 

Teresa Sappier, a member of the Penobscot Nation and parishioner of St. Mary of Sorrows Church in Fairfax, attributes her people’s adoption of Catholicism to the fact that it so closely resembled their ancient beliefs. 

"I didn’t even know it at the time, but He put me where He wanted me to be at a particular time." Teresa Sappier

It was into this Catholic community that Sappier was born Oct.15, 1944, the feast day of St. Teresa of Avila, her namesake. She also was given a Native American name meaning “Little Fawn.”

“Our people were all about community,” said Sappier. “If somebody needed something, everybody knew it and would help. We would have these pound parties where everyone would bring a pound of something to help them survive through the winter months.”

Sappier’s mother, Madeline Polchies-Sappier, was a nurse in the town across the river. 

“She spent a lot of time serving other people and giving to other people,” said Sappier.  Whenever someone was sick she would arrange for a doctor to come to the island, back then by ferry as there was no bridge until 1950, when Teresa was 6. 

Her mother and grandfather, Gabriel Polchies, were instrumental in fostering Sappier’s love of the church. 

“As a young girl, I was a daily communicant. I sang in the choir with my mother at daily Mass,” said Sappier. “Grampy often came to our home and had spiritual conversations with my mother, many of which I overheard. Mom and Grampy were very devoted to Our Lord and committed to our culture and spirituality.”

During one of those conversations, her grandfather spoke about the importance of prayer and being present with God, their creator.

“He said, ‘Silence and stillness are the goals of our spiritual life, and this is what will bring us in union with the Lord Our God. Stillness is bringing our body, mind and spirit into oneness with our Creator and releasing all that distracts us from God.’” 

Leaving the reservation

When Sappier decided to leave the reservation in 1969, her mom hoped that she would become a nun, but Teresa did not feel the call to religious life. She did, however, have a strong desire to serve.

Looking back, Sappier cannot help but marvel at seeing the hand of God guiding her every step. 

“I didn’t even know it at the time, but he put me where he wanted me to be at a particular time,” said Sappier. “If something was going wrong in a certain place, he put me there.” 

After attending lab tech school with the Sisters of Mercy at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Hospital in Waterville, Maine, she earned a degree in microbiology at the University of Maine in Orono in 1978.

“When I finished school, they had just started the clinic on my reservation, which got funded through the Indian Health Service.  I set up the lab there,” said Sappier. “It was fun. My people couldn’t believe it.”

She became a physician assistant through the Indian Health Services in Gallup, N.M., working with the Hopi, Zuni and Navajo people who came to the hospital.

“Everywhere I went, I was always connected with people in the Catholic faith.”

After two years of training, she took a job at the Indian Health Service Hospital in Dillingham, Alaska. She worked in the emergency room and in radio traffic medicine assisting health aides in the outlying villages.

“The health aide would present to you on the radio all the signs and symptoms of the patient and tell you how she has worked with them and then (I) would decide if she did a good job or if the patient needed to come back,” said Sappier.

She enjoyed visiting the villages along the Alaskan coast where she felt like a medical missionary.

“They were wonderful people,” said Sappier. 

While her work in Alaska was fulfilling, by 1985 she was faced with a moral dilemma. “I had a problem pushing pills,” said Sappier. 

Working in the emergency room had taught her that a lot of the issues the native people had were from traumatic relationships, not somthing a pill can fix.

“When people have traumatic relationships we get so emotional about things, and as a result our bodies go through an imbalance and we get ill,” said Sappier. “They needed somebody to listen to them.”

Unfortunately, hospital policy only allotted 15 minutes for doctors and nurses to spend with each patient. 

“I took an oath,” she said. “First, do no harm. I couldn’t do that anymore. So I left.”

She took a research position with the government as a volunteer coordinator for abused people, working in the Alaska Native Medical Center emergency room in Anchorage where she had once been a health care provider. 

A couple years later, she compiled her research into a presentation to train the same doctors and nurses she had worked with so they could better care for Native American patients. 

After 9 years in Alaska, Sappier needed a break from the frigid cold. She returned to New Mexico the summer of 1987 to work for the Five Indian Pueblos Substance Abuse Education Program within the local schools. She remembers one kindergartener telling her that he used her advice when his older brother offered him beer. 

teresa sappier“I did just what you told me to do,” he said. “I said ‘No!’ and ran.”

Secular Carmelites

It was on a return trip to Alaska by way of her reservation in Maine that she found herself discerning the religious life. A friend loaned her a book about St. John of the Cross called Searching for Nothing by Richard P. Hardy. St. John’s writings about the pursuit of interior stillness closely reflected what she had learned growing up. She said to herself, “I think St. John of the Cross was an American Indian.” 

She considered joining the Secular Discalced Carmelite order, which St. John founded with St. Teresa of Ávila. The secular order means Carmelites live in the world according to the beatitudes. 

Sappier flew to California for a course at the University of Santa Cruz where she met Father Luiz  Gonzalas, a Carmelite friar. That meeting — on the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, which was the anniversary of her mother’s death —  finalized her decision to become a Carmelite. 

“There are no coincidences,” said Sappier. “I said, ‘That’s it God, do with me as you wish,’ and I became a Secular Carmelite.”

Sappier founded a group of Secular Carmelites in Anchorage that still exists today. She was clothed in the Holy Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel at Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage, Alaska, July 24, 1998.

“When Father asked me if I accept … I burst into tears,” said Sappier. “To this day, I do not remember entirely what Father said, but I remember saying, ‘I do accept.’”

Later that year she moved to Virginia and gave her final vows in 1999 at the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Washington.

Still serving in retirement

Sappier retired in 2012 after more than 30 years of serving in health care, education and social work. But she wasn’t done serving.  Two weeks later, she attended a meeting for Fairfax County’s Villages: Age-in-place supported communities. The group’s neighbor-helping-neighbor mindset fit perfectly with what she had grown up with on the island reservation. 

She found that many of her elderly neighboors were were disabled. The steps that had once been easy to navigate were now a barrier to the outside world. 

But her help was not always welcome.

“It was hard for me to communicate with the people I met,” said Sappier.  “Elderly people who had been independent all their lives and now were stuck in their homes. They kept saying ‘No, no, no.’”

Frustrated, she explained the situation during Bible study. Word of her neighbors’ plights reached the Knights of Columbus. They wanted to help by installing in ramps, free of charge, during their annual Christmas in April service project. 

Excited, she went back to her neighbors with the news. 

One of her neighbors had broken his ankle since her last visit while trying to carry his disabled wife down the stairs. He was shocked that the Knights would help him, since he wasn’t Catholic.

“You don’t have to be a Catholic,” said Sappier. “You just have to be a person in need and you are in need.” When asked why she would want to help them, she replied, “Because you are my neighbor.” 

That was almost six years ago and nearly 50 years since Sappier left Indian Island.  In a way, she never left. She continues to find ways to help her neighbors and is active in her church. Her community has grown to include people thousands of miles from the banks of the Penobscot River. Wherever Sappier goes, she brings her faith, her culture and her hopes that God will never stop showing her new ways to serve.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018