Sister Mary Loyola Engel of LI dies at 103

A file photo of Sister Mary Loyola Engel. A file photo of Sister Mary Loyola Engel. (Sept. 29, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

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Sister Mary Loyola Engel, likely the oldest nun on Long Island, was born in 1908 and became a nun when Herbert Hoover was president. She died Monday at age 103 after 81 years of service as a sister of a religious order.

Engel died at the convent of Congregation of the Infant Jesus in Rockville Centre. That Roman Catholic order founded the Mercy Medical Center next door to the convent, said Sister Dolores Wisniewski, the order's president.

Engel "lived her life serving others," Wisniewski said Tuesday. She was intellectually gifted and "a visionary. She was always looking ahead."

Eileen T. McMahon, former director of a group of lay associates who share work and prayer with the sisters, said Engel was highly supportive of the program. Engel thought the lay group was part of the future of religious life ushered in by Vatican II reforms in the 1960s, McMahon said.

"She was a truly remarkable woman who influenced many in the order and had a reach beyond," McMahon said. "She had an attitude that we should celebrate each day as a gift from God. She had a very open mind and a very open heart."

Engel was born in the Bronx and, after living several years in Manhattan, moved with her family to Rockville Centre. It was a time when Sunrise Highway did not yet exist. In an interview in July 2008 marking her 100th birthday, she recalled watching lamplighters ignite streetlights in Manhattan before there was electricity, and riding in a horse and buggy before cars became common.

As a student at Hunter College in the 1920s, she volunteered to teach English to Italian immigrants -- an experience that sparked her interest in helping poor people. She entered the Congregation of the Infant Jesus in 1930.

She spent a decade providing home nursing to the poor in Brooklyn during the Great Depression and World War II. Then, for 21 years, she helped teach novices entering the order how to live a religious life. From 1965 to 1974, she led the order and helped implement Vatican II changes.

Engel also held a top role in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an association of leaders of Catholic women religious in the United States.

She wrote two books, including one about the history of her order, and loved Scripture. Even in her final years she was leading Bible study groups. "In her scholarly but down-to-earth manner she was always the teacher," Wisniewski said. "She was a great counselor to others in terms of spirituality and openness to God's presence in their lives. She was an innovator and a leader. If there was a new thing happening, she would be the first one on the boat."

A wake will be Sunday from 2 to 8 p.m. at the order's convent, Villa St. Joseph, 984 North Village Ave., Rockville Centre. A funeral Mass will be offered Monday at 10 a.m. at the convent. Burial will be at Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury.

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