Sister Mary Waters did not just help rescue hundreds of teenage girls who had run away or been thrown out of their homes or become young single mothers.
She also helped transform a community, making people realize the problem existed and they should step forward to lend a hand, community members said.
"It was not just the girls she affected," said Sue Miller, a member of the board of directors of Mercy Center Ministries, which Waters co-founded in 1983 in the Blue Point area. "Mary raised the consciousness of this community."
Waters, who was legendary locally for her charisma and ability to persuade almost anyone to do anything for her on behalf of the cause, died Saturday at her home in Bayport. She was 74.
A member of the Sisters of Mercy, Waters entered the convent in 1958 at 18 and from 1960 to 1976 taught and served as principal of Catholic schools in Brooklyn, said Sister Virginia Baeder, a longtime friend.
After that, she was assigned to run the parish outreach office at Our Lady of the Snow Roman Catholic Church in Blue Point. One day she came across a homeless teenage girl in some woods not far from the church, Miller said.
Waters and the late Teresa "Tee" Kennedy of Bayport, a volunteer in the outreach center, found the girl a place to stay. They eventually encountered more girls in the same predicament. By 1983 the duo opened Mercy House on River Avenue in Patchogue to house some of them. The home was donated by Ric Rose of the Patchogue-based Clare Rose Inc. beer distributor.
Waters, Rose said, was "a very persuasive person."
By 1987 a second house opened in the area to assist pregnant or new mothers between 16 and 21. In 1989 a third house opened for girls in the same situation. A decade later, the ministry acquired an apartment in Patchogue for girls to make the transition from the Mercy program to independent living.
Waters, who obtained a master's degree in social work from Adelphi University, did not just hand out charity and provide a shoulder to cry on for the girls, associates said. She was a tough task master who demanded the girls adhere to a strict set of rules to enter and remain in one of the houses. They had to continue their formal education and take classes on topics such as parenting and cooking, said Briana Taylor, the organization's current executive director.
To date, Mercy Center Ministries, has served about 2,300 girls and infants, Taylor said.
Waters left the group, which is now a non-denominational not-for-profit, in 2001 to take on a leadership role for her order of nuns, and officially retired in 2011."Mercy is her legacy and it's going to continue," Taylor said. "This is the amazing thing she leaves behind."
A wake will be held at Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Syosset Wednesday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at the school on Thursday at 10 a.m., with burial to follow in St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale.
A memorial service is planned for Aug. 5 at 7:30 p.m. at Our Lady of the Snow in Blue Point.