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CELIBATE SECT IS SEEKING CONVERTS

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The last eight members of the celibate Shaker sect are looking for a few good recruits.

Two hundred years after cutting this community out of the woods of Maine, Shakerism lives on and its members are as devoted as ever to following Christ's humble example. Only their ways have changed.Unlike their forebears in aging photographs, Shaker women no longer wear bonnets and plain ankle-length dresses. The men have long since shed straw hats and cotton slacks.

Behind the immaculate 18th- and 19th-century buildings, computers have replaced ledgers, television is available and National Public Radio is tuned in.

"People don't realize there are still living Shakers," said Sister Frances Carr, who with Brother Arnold Hadd heads Sabbathday Lake, the last inhabited Shaker village.

Known to most Americans for their simple, elegant furniture, the Shakers celebrate their village's bicentennial this summer with a conference on their history and future.

In this hamlet along a tree-shaded road, two men and six women between the ages of 30 and 90 worship God in a bucolic setting. They aspire to unity and simplicity, and keeping alive a religious community that has dwindled to a handful from a high of nearly 6,000 members in 20 communities in 1845.

It was founded in America in 1774 by Mother Ann Lee and a handful of Britons who were fleeing religious persecution.

Their membership has largely been women, lured by the Shakers' belief in the equality of the sexes.

The Shakers, formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, do not actively seek converts but invite people to witness their lives in Sunday services and retreats.

Up to 50 people a year inquire about membership.

"People who come here really expect to find utopia," said Sister Frances. "Two or three people have been upset that they come here and find that we are more modern than they anticipated. They are unhappy that we have a television, that we have a record-filled library. I'm not sure if it's a romantic dream to live as the Shakers lived 100 years ago, but even the Shakers who lived then were progressive," she said.

"Shakerism changes with the times, (but) the bedrock of the faith never changes," said Brother Arnold, 37, who joined 16 years ago.

Dressed in a blue shirt, pink skirt and blue sneakers, Sister Frances looks like any contemporary person at home.

While some people don't know that Shakerism has changed with the times, even more people believe the sect has died out or is no longer taking new converts.

Sister Frances blames the media for perpetuating the problem that keeps membership low. Documentaries and magazine articles in the past reported that the sect closed its rolls - a decision made by another Shaker community that was never adopted at Sabbathday Lake.

Those who do seek out the Shakers for conversion are often, as Sister Frances gently put it, "eccentric." Since harmony is vital for the community, screening is thorough.