One of Last Remaining Members of Shaker Village Dies

Jan 3, 2017

The oldest practicing Shaker in the world has died at her home in New Gloucester at the age of 89.

The passing of Sister Frances Carr leaves just two members in the small religious community that gives up personal possessions, lives communally and devotes itself to prayer.

The Shakers first came to America from England in the 18th century, and were at one point active in more than a dozen communities in New England. The goal of the last few survivors remains the same: to see that Shakerism endures.

Sister Frances Carr was just 10 years old in 1937, when her father died and hard economic times forced her mother to turn over Frances and her younger sister to the Shakers’ Sabbathday Lake community. Their five older siblings were already living there.

Brother Arnold Hadd says that experience shaped the character of the woman who became what he calls the “best ambassador” the community ever had.

“She was always seeking out the needy and the lowly and trying to make them
‘a part,’ to give them something that they didn’t necessarily have,” he says.

The Shakers were known for taking in orphans. Those who embraced the basic tenants of the Protestant sect were welcome to join when they became adults.

“It’s a sharing of all things in common, so it’s a religious communism, living in community. We’re also a celibate community and we also believe in the confession of sin,” Sister Frances said in a 1995 interview, describing the tenets, known as the three C’s.

Sister Frances Carr at the Shaker Village community in New Gloucester.
Credit Steve O'Connor / Courtesy Shaker Village

But Sister Frances also recognized that Shakerism was not the best fit for everyone, and not just because of celibacy. In her autobiography, “Growing Up Shaker,” she wrote about the departure of her sister and other friends from the community.

For most people, she said, putting God ahead of self and giving up independence was simply too much. Not for her. She said that once she became a Shaker she never felt alone.

“I am very happy. No life is absolutely completely free of worry or troubles, but it’s the life I’ve chosen and it’s where I intend to spend the rest of my life,” Sister Frances said in a 1998 interview.

As a Shaker, along with her love of faith, Sister Frances discovered a love of cooking. She became the head cook at the age of 21 and then a trustee who helped handle the community’s financial affairs and eventually a spiritual leader.

“She was always the family spokesman. Many people in this life are kind of shy and retiring. Frances Carr was never shy and never retiring. And she was always right there. And she had a very easy manner about her that no matter who you were she could approach you and you would feel special,” Brother Arnold says.

Sister Frances died Monday of complications from melanoma. Brother Arnold says, in typical Shaker tradition, she did not die alone, and was surrounded by friends and family who prayed with her and sang Shaker songs to send her off.

In 1998, Sister Frances said in an interview she prayed everyday for new members to join their ranks. And Brother Arnold says he and the other remaining member will continue those prayers.