Cops: Nun killed in Water Mill hit-run

Mourners attend a wake at St. Edward Confessor Church in Syosset for Sister Jacqueline Walsh, who was killed Monday night in a hit and run crash in Water Mill. Videojournalist: Jessica Rotkiewicz (July 13, 2012)

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A Syosset nun out for a walk while on a retreat with colleagues was killed in Water Mill by a hit-and-run driver who authorities say has been identified as a local resident.

Sister Jacqueline Walsh, 59, was remembered as a woman of faith, warmth and humor at a memorial service Tuesday night.

"She was a force of nature," Marilyn Fox, 65, of Huntington, said at the service that drew hundreds of people to St. Edward Confessor Church in Syosset, where Walsh served in capacities ranging from pastoral duties -- such as bringing non-Catholics into the faith -- to more pedestrian tasks, such as doubling as the parish photographer.

Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said Southampton Town police know the identity of the driver, whom they had not located despite a search that began soon after the crash about 8:30 p.m. Monday.

Walsh had taken a walk alone, as was her custom, when the driver struck her and abandoned the vehicle a half-mile from the accident scene, Southampton Town police said.

The overflow crowd at the Syosset church, spilling into the aisles and reception area, provided a glimpse of the popularity of a woman who was down to earth even as she fulfilled a spiritual calling.

"She always had a big smile," said Fox, the church's music director, who said she knew Walsh for nine years. "She loved her work. . . . She loved to sing. She loved to dance."

Southampton Det. Sgt. Lisa Costa said Walsh was found on the ground near 383 Rose Hill Rd., next to the Sisters of Mercy Villa, by a passerby. Walsh was dressed in lay summer clothing.

Known as Sister Jackie, Walsh "was well-loved, a woman of faith, warmth, and humor who touched the lives of many with her joy and concern for others," said Sister Pat Vetrano, president of the Mid-Atlantic Community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, an order of 3,559 nuns.

At the memorial service, laughter mixed with tears as the people who knew and loved Walsh reflected on her contributions, taste for good food and music -- she was said to have had 10,000 songs on her laptop -- and character.

In one light moment of the service, Rabbi Rafi Rank, leader of the Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, said he once faced a thorny dilemma when deciding how to interact with Walsh.

"I haven't always known the right thing to do," he said. "But she did. . . . At one point, I remember thinking, 'I want to give this woman a hug.' But I wasn't sure whether a rabbi could hug a nun."

The anecdote drew peals of laughter.

Walsh, a Brooklyn native, was a pastoral associate at the church for nine years.

For the previous six years, she was campus minister of the Our Lady of Mercy Academy, a prominent Catholic girls high school in Syosset where she had been a theology teacher, said Debbi Della Porta, a spokeswoman for the Mid-Atlantic Community of the Sisters of Mercy.

She was living in Hicksville when she joined Sisters of Mercy in 1981.

At St. Edward Confessor Church, Walsh "was involved in every aspect," from running the altar-service program to managing church readings, said Deacon Jim Murphy.

"Jackie had a good time wherever she went," he said. "She loved life. She was dynamite -- exactly what you want in a religious leader."

"She was down to earth," said Dale Thomas, 37, of Plainview, who was a member of the youth ministry at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Hicksville in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"She was kind and she was considerate," Thomas said of Walsh, who had been youth minister. "When you were younger and you needed to talk to someone, you could talk to her."

"And she was cool, too," Thomas said. "She was a younger nun. . . . She would go to rock concerts. I know she had Neil Diamond tickets recently but she couldn't go. She was very funny. You'd see her at church fairs and she'd be on the rides, like the big slide.

"It's just horrible this happened when she was at a retreat, where she was probably trying to get closer to God," Thomas said.

Sister Jackie was the single child of a New York police officer and his wife, Murphy said. Both her parents are deceased.

Since Saturday, Walsh had been at a retreat at the Sisters of Mercy Villa, a religious campground in Water Mill. The weeklong retreats involve a period of prayer and meditation, Della Porta said.

Near the scene, one woman described the crash. "I heard a bump, like plastic hitting something, but no brake noise," said Mindia Gugeshashvili, 40, a housekeeper who was watching television about a half-mile from the road.

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