Bernadette McCaffrey was the matriarch of a family that included five children,...

Bernadette McCaffrey was the matriarch of a family that included five children, 13 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. Credit: Courtesy Michael Martino

For Bernadette Rose McCaffrey, keeping her family together was always more important than who was right or wrong in an argument. 

McCaffrey, of Massapequa Park, the matriarch of a family that included five children, 13 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren, died Thursday at St. Francis Hospital in Flower Hill of heart illness. She was 97. 

"She loved being around her family. She loved going to Montauk and visiting all of our houses. There was always a wedding, baptism, birthday party or anniversary she had to go to and it was where she wanted to be," said her son, Kevin McCaffrey, of Lindenhurst, the presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature. 

Bernadette McCaffrey, whom everyone called Betty, was born in New York City on July 4,1925, to Irish immigrants Bernard and Julia Tierney. 

The youngest of three sisters, she was raised in Jackson Heights, Queens, primarily by her aunt after both her parents died of tuberculosis when she was 6.

"She never really knew family growing up, but she created such a full family and that was the greatest gift she gave us," said her daughter, Maureen Fitzgerald, of Massapequa, commissioner of community and youth services in the Town of Oyster Bay.

After graduating from the Catholic, all-girls Dominican Commercial High School in Jamaica, Queens, Betty McCaffrey worked as a secretary in Rockefeller Center for the company Peck and Peck.

Through mutual friends in Jackson Heights, she met Eugene McCaffrey, a U.S. Army corporal who had recently returned from a tour of duty in World War II. 

The two married in 1950 and moved to Massapequa Park in 1955. Betty stayed home to raise their five children, and Eugene, whom everyone called Gene, worked as a detective in the NYPD.

The two were devout Catholics who were founding members of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Massapequa Park.

Betty served as the president of the Rosary Society and later spent 42 years working as a secretary in the church’s Religious Education office, retiring only four years ago at the age of 93. 

After Gene died in 1988, Betty continued to work and socialize well into her 90s, family members said.

She earned the title "Queen of the Golden Girls" in her Massapequa Park circle of friends, Kevin McCaffrey recalled, as a testament to her zest for life. 

She started dating in her 80s, became a fan of the Yankees, and attended the Knights of Columbus happy hours. 

Kevin McCaffrey recalled a time when he was about 8 years old and visited Manhattan with his mother. The two were on a subway platform and she said: "Act like you belong."

"To this day, anytime I walk into an event or am in a situation where I don't know if I belong, I hear her voice and I act like I belong. And then, somehow, I start to feel like I belong, too," Kevin McCaffrey said. 

In addition to son Kevin and daughter Maureen, Bernadette McCaffrey is survived by sons Thomas, Justin and James McCaffrey, all of Massapequa; her children's spouses, and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 

In addition to her husband, she was preceded in death by her sisters, Helen and Margaret.

A wake will be held Sunday from 6 to 9 p.m., and Monday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m., at Massapequa Funeral Home North Chapel in Massapequa Park. A Catholic funeral Mass will be celebrated Tuesday at 10:45 a.m. at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Massapequa Park. A burial at St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale will follow. 

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