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Column: Celebrating a nun’s 60 years of service

Last Saturday night a large group of men, women, children and babies filled all the pews at St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church in Greenport for the 8 p.m. Spanish Mass. Benches at the rear of the church were filled, and the foyer by the doors that open onto Main Road was standing room only.

The Mass at St. Agnes attracts an enthusiastic congregation of Hispanic workers and families. Those who came this night were there to honor Sister Margaret Smyth, who 60 years ago this month took her first steps in professing final vows as a religious.

Father Ceasar Lara, who celebrated the Mass, extolled her work, and Sister Margaret spoke afterward in fluent Spanish, thanking everyone for coming. Then everyone walked across the street to the auditorium of the Catholic school, where a dinner of beef stew, rice, mashed potatoes and salad was served, followed by a cake and the singing of songs in Spanish.

Sister Margaret sat at a table at the front of the auditorium, surrounded by people who have a deep love for her, and who appreciate all she has done for them.

Margarito Gonzalez, who met Sister Margaret in 1999, said: “She is everything for someone who is here and has nothing — no family or friends. She works for everyone who needs help. She lives the Gospels. She is doing what God is telling her to do.”

Monsignor Joe Staudt, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Cutchogue, said: “For all the people whose lives have been enriched by Sister Margaret’s ministry, she has been our version of St. Mother Teresa.”

Father Cesar blesses Sister Margaret Smyth. (Credit: Elizabeth Wagner)

For Sister Margaret, the last 60 years have been a great gift. She was 17 years old and living in Woodside, Queens, when she decided to begin her journey as a nun.

“My family was a good, Irish Catholic family,” she said. “My father’s brother was a priest in Ireland. Three of my cousins entered the convent before me. I always had a desire to help people. As a teenage kid I used to go to what was then called Welfare Island, off Long Island City. There was a big hospital there and I’d go and help patients.

“One way I saw of doing good was to become a nun. So I made an appointment to go to the Mother House in Amityville, Queen of the Rosary. The day I entered, right after high school, 76 other women entered on that one day.”

She later taught in schools in Brooklyn and Queens, served as a principal at one school and at one point lived in a convent in East New York in Brooklyn, which had a high murder rate.

“We had a lot of rooms in that convent,” she said. “We took in girls over 18 to live with us because they had bad situations at home. We had women and children living with us. One was pregnant. I was present at the baby’s birth.”

She later worked in El Salvador and Guatemala, living in places without running water or access to bathrooms, where people cooked on the floor over open fires. When she returned to Long Island in the late 1990s, a nun suggested she look for work to do on the North Fork.

“The first place I went to was Mattituck,” she said. “I went to a farm at lunchtime. The guys invited me to share their tortillas. I was so touched. I said, ‘I will come here.’ ”

She moved into a convent in Cutchogue in January 1997. Five nuns were living in that convent then. There are none now, and the convent has been sold. Sister Margaret lives in an apartment in Mattituck.

“When I came out I had no work. My direction was to go out and help the Hispanic community. One priest in Riverhead took me around to meet people, but he left to work in prisons in Florida. I made up business cards and followed people in stores who I heard speaking Spanish. I introduced myself and asked where they lived. I went to every home of people I met.

“At St. Agnes in Greenport I put up signs urging people to come. I put out coffee and cookies and music on a CD player. People would show up for dances on Saturday night. There was no Spanish Mass then, but we said prayers. I just wanted people to know I was there.”

Sister Margaret poses for a photo with the Sanchez family of Greenport. (Credit: Elizabeth Wagner)

Today, Sister Margaret, 77, runs the North Fork Spanish Apostolate in Riverhead. She helps countless families and even goes to court — as she will on Friday — to help get workers properly paid by employers.

“These are people who are helping make good communities, who are working hard and sending their children to schools and colleges and medical schools,” she said. “The good Lord has shown me how to do this. I am very grateful. Whatever I can do to help, I want do that.”

Top photo caption: Sister Margaret blows kisses to the crowd in gratitude. (Credit: Elizabeth Wagner)

The author is the executive editor of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected] or 631-354-8048.