On June 2, 2004, close to half of Shaw Island's 200 or so residents gather at the ferry terminal to bid farewell to the four Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist who until Memorial Day weekend ran the terminal and the Little Portion Store, the island's only commercial establishment. The nuns, who worked the ferry landing's enormous hydraulic ramps in their long brown habits and fluorescent safety vests, have been an island symbol and favorite sight of ferry passengers since 1976. With the nuns, all in their 60s and 70s, retiring, the ferry contract and store are taken over by Shaw residents Terri and Steve Mason.
Shaw Island is much smaller in both land area and population than the other three San Juan islands served by Washington State Ferries (San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez). With limited fresh water and residents who value their privacy, it has no tourist facilities except a county park and the store at the ferry landing.
"A Little Portion of the Earth"
The Franciscan Sisters moved to the small, rural island in 1976 to run the ferry terminal and the adjoining marina, general store, and post office. They named the store Little Portion after the Italian church Portiuncula, meaning "a little portion [of the earth]," where St. Francis of Assisi lived and died. For a generation the four women ran the store and put in 16-hour days meeting ferries at the terminal, while also finding time to run a preschool, teach computer education, and direct a chorale and chamber orchestra. Over the years the nuns operating the Shaw ferry ramp in their habits became a landmark for thousands of ferry passengers in the San Juans, both island residents and visitors, including many who never set foot on Shaw.
By 2003, with no new recruits joining them, the island nuns and their order decided to end their service on Shaw Island. The decision saddened many islanders who worried that outsiders would take over and change the store's character. But not all residents were sorry to see the nuns depart; some had boycotted the store since the 1980s as a result of land use disputes with the Catholic orders on the island.
Shaw residents Terri and Steve Mason, who initially tried to persuade the nuns to stay, stepped in to buy the $1.4 million property from the Franciscan order. It was a complicated deal, because they also needed to obtain the ferry terminal contract. They ultimately succeeded with support from the San Juan County Commissioners. The Masons took over from the nuns on Memorial Day weekend of 2004.
"The End of an Era"
The nuns left Shaw on the 10:35 a.m. ferry on June 2, moving to a Franciscan center in Bridal Veil, Oregon. Some 80 islanders came to see them off. One said, "It couldn't go on forever -- but we all hoped that it would. It's the end of an era" (Lyke).
The Franciscans were honored for their service at an August 7, 2004, ceremony at Shaw Island. Announcing the ceremony, Washington State Ferries director Mike Thome said:
"The Sisters exemplify everything good about Washington State Ferries ... They were an important part of their community ... and became an integral part of the ambience of the ferry system in the San Juan Islands.
"Everyone visiting the islands wanted to see the nuns and their dog raise and lower the transfer span at Shaw. They were a symbol of the San Juan Islands, like the orcas that call the area home" (San Juan Journal).
Although the Franciscans departed, nuns remained on Shaw Island. Eight Benedictine nuns (wearing black and white rather than brown habits) continued to live in Our Lady of the Rock Monastery, founded on the island in 1977. The Benedictines, members of a contemplative, semi-cloistered order, raised rare cattle and sheep breeds, along with llamas, poultry, vegetables, herbs, and flowers on 300 acres of forest and farmland.