Sister Irene Garvey was head of the Dominican Sisters of Amityville during the tumultuous 1970s, when the Vatican II reforms rocked the Catholic Church, vocations plummeted and many religious sisters moved from their traditional roles in schools and hospitals to new ministries such as prisons and social justice issues.
By many accounts, Garvey pulled the order — the second largest on Long Island — through the upheaval and kept it strong as it entered a new, exciting phase.
“Those years were blessed in so many ways, but they were very sorrowful in others” as many nuns and priests left religious life, said Sister Mary Pat Neylon, the current prioress, or head, of the order.
“Moving through that time was a difficult time, but it was clear who she was to all of us and I think she had a tremendous amount of respect on the part of the sisters in the congregation,” Neylon said.
Garvey, who served as head of the order from 1973 to 1981 — which included election to a second term as prioress — died Thursday at the order’s Motherhouse in Amityville. She was 91 and had served 72 years as a nun.
Garvey had a distinguished career in the order, teaching at Molloy College, living in a house of prayer for six years, serving at a Jesuit retreat house in New Jersey, and providing spiritual direction to the faithful even after she retired.
In October 1979, she was selected to serve as a lector for a prayer service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral led by a visiting Pope John Paul II.
In a statement, the order said Garvey “was a preacher and teacher of truth, a woman immersed in God’s Word, a woman in love with God’s creation — she was truly Dominican.”
Garvey grew up in Woodhaven, where she first met Dominican sisters at St. Thomas Apostle parish, and entered the order in 1945. She spent the early part of her ministry teaching in elementary and high schools in Queens, Brooklyn and Nassau County, the order said in a news release.
She received a bachelor of arts degree in English literature from St. John’s University, a master’s degree in speech from Fordham University and a doctorate of education in speech from Teachers College at Columbia University.
From 1966 to 1972, she taught speech at Molloy in the Communication Arts Department, where she also served as a department chair.
She left to serve as head of the order. During that time, she also was elected chair for the New York region of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the main national umbrella group for nuns.
Years later, she was quoted in the book “Habits of Change: An Oral History of American Nuns” as saying, “I loved being in leadership. . . . I wanted the Sisters to discern what their gifts were [and] to be free . . . to use them. ”
When she completed her terms as head of the order in 1981, she moved to the Samaria Prayer Center, a prayer house run by the order initially in Farmingdale and then in Hicksville. She served as spiritual director and retreat director.
In 1988 she joined the staff of Loyola Retreat House in Morristown, New Jersey, where she spent the next 14 years doing similar work. “She had to make that shift from being a Dominican to promoting Jesuit spirituality,” Neylon said, “but she carefully balanced it beautifully.”
She retired from Loyola in 2002, and moved to Harvest Grove, a retirement house for nuns from various orders in Lake Grove. People continued to seek her out for spiritual direction, and she engaged in one of her passions — bird watching.
She touched thousands of people throughout her life, Neylon said, including one who told her this week that Garvey “was a mother to me, more than my own mother.”
Garvey is survived by a sister, Virginia, who lives in Florida. A wake will take place at the order’s Motherhouse on Tuesday from 3 to 5 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. Morning prayers will take place Wednesday at 10:10 a.m., followed by a funeral Mass at 10:30 a.m. She will be buried in the order’s cemetery on the same grounds.