Sister Margaret Smyth, ‘Our version of Mother Teresa,’ dies at 83

Update: Wednesday Dec. 21, 9:30 a.m.:

Services have been set for Sister Margaret Smyth, who died Monday at age 83. All will be held at St. John the Evangelist in Riverhead.

A wake will be held Wednesday, Dec. 21 from 7:30-8:30 p.m. with a prayer service in Spanish. 

A second service will be held Thursday, Dec. 22 from 9:45 to 11 a.m. with a funeral mass starting at 11 a.m. A live stream will be available on the church’s YouTube channel. (@stjohnriverheadchurch8333 on YouTube)

Original story:

The North Fork is mourning the loss of Sister Margaret Smyth, 83, who died in her sleep Monday at her Riverhead home.

For almost three decades, Sr. Margaret was known as a champion for migrant workers and the immigrant population on the North Fork. In 1996, as a member of the Sisters of St. Dominic of Amityville, she founded the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, an organization that, among other things, provides religious services, advocacy and support to the local Latino community, and farm workers in particular. She was even known for appearing in town Justice Court to help workers recoup unpaid wages.

The organization is unlike any other on the East End, with its focus on the needs of migrant workers, immigrants and Hispanic residents. Its website lists 11 types of available support, including language, citizenship and cultural education, health care education, parenting skills workshops and legal support in civil matters.

“When she first came here, there was no priest that spoke Spanish on the North Fork,” said Father Larry Duncklee, pastor of St. John the Evangelist R.C. Church in Riverhead. “She did a ton of stuff. She worked tirelessly to help the Hispanic community in the town.”

Margaret Rose Smyth was born Oct. 29, 1939, in Woodside, Queens, to Irish immigrant parents. She received a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from St. John’s University and two master’s degrees from Fordham University, in spiritual studies and urban education. She was 17 years old when she entered the convent.

She was the principal of two Catholic elementary schools — St. Catherine of Sienna in St. Albans, Queens, and Our Lady of Solace in Coney Island — and served for 11 years as an associate pastor of St. Cantius Parish in East New York, one of the most violent sections of New York City. “We used to go to bed every night to the sound of gunfire in the streets,” Sr. Margaret told The News-Review in 2006, when she was named the newspaper’s Person of the Year. 

Sr. Margaret 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 fellow sister suggested she look for work to do on the North Fork.

“The first place I went to was Mattituck,” she told a reporter in 2017. “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.’ ”

Rosendo Herrera first met Sister Margaret Smyth in 1999, working with a youth group in the community.

“At that time there were no [resources], she was the impulse behind that [North Fork Spanish Apostolate], she started it all,” he said in Spanish.

Under Sr. Margaret’s guidance, Mr. Herrera has since become one of the leaders in North Fork Spanish Apostolate’s growing ministry and helps organize many events for the Spanish-speaking Catholic community.

He said she taught him how to become a leader.

“That was her biggest worry, to create leaders to work in the community, and she built that for years,” Mr. Herrera said.

In 2017, in celebration of her 60th Jubilee, Sr. Margaret was honored for her years of service to the local community at a packed, standing-room-only mass at St. Agnes R.C. Church in Greenport. Fellow religious leaders and community members extolled her work and Monsignor Joe Staudt, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, said she’s been “our version of St. Mother Teresa.”

In an interview Monday afternoon, Mr. Herrera said he’d been expecting a phone call from Sr. Margaret earlier that day about an event they were working on. He called her twice, he said, but “when she didn’t answer, we had to go and see what was going on.”

Another member of the community went to check on her and, through a phone call, Mr. Herrera learned she had died.

He said her legacy will be her tirelessness in creating leaders and working to provide as much as she could for the community.

“I think she left her footprint deep in the entire community, and many other areas. With her character and the way she worked, she has left her mark on the Hispanic community,” Mr. Herrera said. “Sister Margaret never got tired of working and never got tired of helping us — I say ‘us’ because she helped us all. We’ll miss her very much.”

Rafael Boch, a leader of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate’s music ministry, met Sr. Margaret when he moved to New York from Guatemala in March 2002.

In an interview in Spanish, Mr. Boch said she was like a “second mother” to him and his brother, Geremias. He was at work when he found out that she’d died through a message in a group chat.

“When I get the news that she had passed, believe me, it was like the weight of the world fell on top of me, because besides seeing her as a professional and hardworking nun that was full of faith, my brother and I adopted her as our second mother … a spiritual mother,” he said.

His first reaction was to call her personal cellphone — he was one of the lucky few who had that number. Father Larry answered and let him know he was at Sr. Margaret’s apartment. 

Mr. Boch went to the apartment, where just a week earlier his wife had made some soup for her, and waited through the afternoon for a representative from the funeral home.

“It’s impossible to describe all that she’s done for all of us, but she always motivated us to have a solid faith in God, stemming from that she also taught us how to be good people and respect other cultures,” Mr. Boch said. “She united us all and taught us how to be true leaders.” 

Father Larry said: “We may have to hire two people to replace her,” he said. “One is not going to do it.”

A wake for Sr. Margaret is set for Thursday, Dec. 22, from 9:45 to 11 a.m. at St. John the Evangelist R.C. Church in Riverhead. A funeral Mass will follow immediately and will be live-streamed on the church YouTube channel: stjohnriverhead.