Guide to the San Juans

What to Do on Shaw Island—Also Known as the Holy Island

The nuns who live on this quiet San Juan island have been busy farming their bucolic acres, and there's camping right on a sandy beach. And if you can't find something at this island's only store, you probably don't want it anyway.

By Allison Williams August 1, 2014 Published in the August 2014 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Tari Gunstone

Editor’s Note: Originally published in August 2014, this article was updated in May 2017 for accuracy and relevance.

Nuns are Shaw Island’s thing. San Juan Island has its signature killer whales, and Mount Constitution dominates Orcas, but tiny Shaw is better known for its nuns than the famous folks who own houses there (even the one named Bill Gates). 

For 27 years every ferry that landed at Shaw was met by a Franciscan nun wearing a reflective vest over her brown habit; that order departed the island in 2004. But there’s still no shortage of godliness on the isle; since 1977 Benedictine nuns have tended to Our Lady of the Rock Monastery in the center of Shaw, seven women operating one of the island's last working farms. 

Hospitality is second only to prayer in the Benedictine order, so Our Lady of the Rock welcomes families, contemplative individuals, and groups to a guest house abutting a koi pond. Visitors pay by donation but get to dine on the farm’s “better than organic” meat and produce.

“They come for every reason in the world. We get everybody,” says Mother Hildegard, whose life as a nun has included a doctorate in psychology. She tries to accept only visitors who want to pray or pitch in, since the working farm isn’t the best destination for leisure travel. Arrivals are quickly drawn to the vegetable garden, paddocks housing llamas and alpacas, or the squawk-filled coop with a sign reading “Chicken Heaven.”

Image: Tari Gunstone

“We’re more missionaries out here” on an island with only one other practicing Catholic, says Mother Hildegard. The nuns leave their farm--adjacent enclosure to teach birding, music, and 4-H animal rearing to island kids. The outside world often sneaks into their enclosure; the nuns like to listen to Mariners games while they milk the cows. They have strong opinions on last season’s Dancing with the Stars. 

But in a chapel made of wood and stained glass they still keep a strict schedule of prayer, mass, and vespers—the ancient Latin in strict contrast to the weathered blue Subarus parked by the door.

Few women have joined the nun’s order in recent years, and the aging women are cautiously optimistic that younger mothers will replace them. But the diminutive Mother Prioress, who oversees Our Lady of the Rock and barely reaches the shoulder of the cows she milks, won’t give up on the farm. “She is a lady of steel. She’s little and gentle, but she’s steel,” says Mother Hildegard. Shaw’s nuns aren’t going anywhere.

What to Do

Shaw County Park

Campsites line a wide, sandy beach, one of the few publicly accessible spots on the island. Though next to some beautiful beachfront houses, conditions are so rustic that there’s no public drinking water in winter.

Image: Tari Gunstone

Library and Historical Society

Despite serving a mere 240 residents, the island library sees more than 1,200 checkouts a year. It shares its cedar-log cabin home with the historical society and is partly overseen by Shaw resident Alex MacLeod, a second-generation Seattle Times managing editor. The building is only open three days a week for a few hours at a time but is one of several thriving community centers on the island. 

Silver Bay Cottage

There’s only one short-term accommodation on the entire island, a hundred-year-old cottage next to the Shaw General Store operated by the store owners. The small porch overlooks a small beach and the ferry dock, and nightlife consists solely of visiting wildlife.

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