Enfield Shaker Sister Grace L. Holbrook
Sister Grace L. Holbrook
Carte de visite
C. E. Lewis, Photographer, Lebanon, NH, ca. 1880
Private Collection

Sister Grace L. Holbrook

Grace Lord Holbrook, Shaker nurse sister, was born January 22, 1868, in Boston, Massachusetts, the daughter of John and Annie (Burnett) Holbrook. Grace’s father, a grocer in Boston, died in May 1871, followed by her four-month-old brother in October 1871. Two other brothers had died as infants, leaving Grace as an only child. The family circumstances that brought Grace to Enfield’s Second (South) family are not recorded in surviving Shaker documents. Even the year of her arrival is not certain. The 1880 U.S. Census confirms that in that year she was part of the Second Family.

Grace was educated in the Second Family’s one room school. Her teachers were Shaker Sisters Sally Ann Tucker and Annie Ellis. It had long been the custom to teach the Shaker boys only during the winter months, and girls from May to early fall, but by the time Grace was in school the girls attended both summer and winter sessions.

No surviving Shaker records speak directly to Grace’s young adult years. We know, however that she came of age as the Second or South Family was in serious decline. In 1890, Trustee William Wilson had proudly reported that “as of April 14, 1890 the Second Family was free and clear from every encumberance (sic) and debt whatever.” But what threatened the family was not its finances, but its paucity of Believers. Eldress Caroline Whitcher wrote of its eighteen members, “The family consists mostly of aged Sisters & one aged brother viz. Elder Timothy Randlett. William Wilson is the Elder & Trustee. Eldress Melinda Hubbard at the head of the family & Sister Anna Ellis associated with her. How long they will be able to move along we are now unable to see. You know aged people are not apt to want to be moved and we hope they will not have to be.”

By 1893, twenty-four year old Grace Holbrook was the only young Shaker sister in the family; Elder William Wilson stood alone on the brothers’ side. She and three sisters nearing the age of 70 were doing all they could to meet the needs of the family’s five small girls and four aged sisters. However, some decisions were not theirs to make. That year, a century after its founding, the Second Family Shakers were relocated to the Church Family, and their home at the south end of Mascoma Lake was for sale.

Becoming part of the larger Church Family probably offered relief from burdens, but relocation also posed emotional challenges. An October 28, 1898 entry in the family membership journal states simply, “Grace H. leaves her home here for one elsewhere.”

After three months “in the World” Grace returned to the Enfield Shakers. The membership record states, “Grace Holbrook returns home and moves to the Infirmary.” For the next twenty years, Grace served faithfully as a Nurse Sister in the Church Family Infirmary. It was both her place of work and her residence. Her companions and nursing associates were Sisters Elizabeth Estabrook and Mary Darling.

During those decades of providing care to others Grace occasionally had opportunities to enjoy a change of routine. In the spring of 1901, she, Tryphena Bradford, and the Appleton sisters made a week-long visit to Canterbury. The next year she accompanied Eldress Emeline Hart on a 17-day sales trip to coastal tourist towns in Massachusetts. Some years she and fellow Enfield Sisters enjoyed a respite from home responsibilities at the family’s summer cottage on Lake Sunapee.

As time passed, however, the issues that had forced the closing of the South Family continued to loom large. History would indeed repeat itself as the Enfield Shakers contemplated closing their doors and relocating to Canterbury Shaker Village. In 1918, with only enough fire wood to keep one building warm through the winter, the Infirmary at Enfield was shuttered. Although Grace would remain at Enfield, her companions Mary and Elizabeth would be moved to Canterbury.

Grace was facing a difficult decision. Would she again participate in the painful process of closing her community, and then follow her aging family to a new Shaker home? Would she dare to strike out on her own? In May of 1921, Grace made a visit to Canterbury to see Sister Mary Darling, but by then she had probably made the choice to leave the Society and to begin a new life in the neighboring town of Lebanon, New Hampshire.

On her own, Grace sought work as a practical nurse. She joined the Baptist Church and became a member of the Mount Lebanon Rebekah Lodge. Fortunately, she was able to make a few close friends who stood by her when her health began to fail. On January 12, 1926, three years after the Enfield Shaker community closed, and five years into her new life, Grace Lord Holbrook died in Hanover, New Hampshire. She is buried in Canaan, New Hampshire.

Her obituary was published in The Landmark, White River Junction, Vermont on January 21, 1926, (p. 4).

Original author: Mary Ann Haagen