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Publication: Times & Transcript
Issue: 10 March 2010
Title: Mary Josephine Ray, the second oldest person in the world, died Sunday
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Mary Josephine Ray's long and colourful life was extinguished Sunday in New Hampshire, but the 114-year-old Acadian remains a timeless inspiration.
Ray was born an Arsenault in Bloomfield, P.E.I. on May 17, 1895, and her life led her to Maine and eventually New Hampshire.
While she was exiled from the Maritimes for most of her life, Mary Josephine played an important role in the Arsenault family's reunion this summer in the Acadian Peninsula during the World Acadian Congress.
Mary Josephine, who died as the second oldest person in the world, the oldest American, and likely the oldest Acadian to have ever lived, graciously accepted an invitation to serve as the honorary president of the family's association.
Frederic Arsenault, a former deputy minister in the Hatfield government and the president of the Arsenault family's association, said Mary Josephine was one of the inspiring forces of this summer's celebrations.
"We had a very large photograph of her, and text explaining her history and so forth, so people were touched," said Frederic, a Rhodes Scholar.
"It certainly caused a lot of people to talk quite a bit about it, because it's rather unique."
Frederic said he knows of other Arsenaults who have topped the 100-year mark around the Maritimes, and he joked that the family's longevity can be a blessing and a curse.
"It is probably very discouraging to some of those who are married to Arsenaults," he said with a laugh.
Frederic said he had been considering a trip down to New Hampshire in May to visit Mary Josephine on her birthday.
She was a tireless Red Sox fan who attended a game at Fenway Park in 2003. Her family said she loved to sing, especially the American classic "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in honour of her beloved Red Sox. She was also an avid card shark who took on all challengers and remained active and relatively independent until just before her death.
When Frederic learned of Mary Josephine's death on Sunday, he informed members of the Arsenault family's association and contacted Mary Josephine's family.
"We have offered our condolences to the members of the family, while pointing how we appreciated that she had accepted to be the honorary president of our association last year," he said.
"Apparently she had been in quite good health until about two weeks ago and I understand someone interviewed her about a week ago."
Arsenault said her death is felt beyond the Arsenault family in the larger Acadian community.
"According to our information, she is the person of Acadian origin who lived the longest in all of history, as far as we know."
Mary Josephine didn't communicate in French in her later years but, according to her granddaughter, Kathy, she still sang songs and repeated prayers in her Acadian tongue.
"She still sings songs in French, and her schooling education only went to the third grade, and she was self-taught in writing," Kathy told the Times & Transcript in an interview last July. Mary Josephine moved to Maine at age three and lived in, Rumford, Madison, and Anson. Her parents died when she was eight, and she eventually moved to New Hampshire. She had been living in a nursing home near Kathy's home in Westmoreland, a small town of about 1,800 residents.
Asked about the secrets to her amazing longevity, Kathy told the Times & Transcript in July that her grandmother lived in the moment and enjoyed life as it unfolded.
"She has a strong personality; she doesn't act like she is ever going to die. She is very healthy, very strong, and she doesn't think about dying either," said Kathy.
In fact, Kathy said in July that Mary Josephine didn't pay much attention to her ranking as one of the world's oldest people. She was born only a week after the world's oldest person, Japan's Kama Chinen, who is 114 and 302 days old. Mary Josephine's life lasted 114 years and 294 days.
"She doesn't say, 'Wow, I am the third oldest. She doesn't think about how old she is, only when her birthday comes around she wants her party," she said. "She loves her birthday parties and she really doesn't think about her age."
The P.E.I. native has two sons, and eight grandchildren, and all are still living.
Arsenault said there are many Arsenault families in particular, and Acadian families in general, in the New England states. He said he counted more than 1,400 Arsenaults in a Massachusetts phonebook.
Over the years, economic conditions in the Maritimes have prompted many Acadians to look for work, and new lives, south of the border.