It was the early 1960s, and Marie Zirkel and her husband, Don, decided to single-handedly integrate their all-white street in Hicksville. When they moved two blocks away, they rented their home to what he described as a "dark-skinned" Puerto Rican family.
The family's reception was mixed, Don Zirkel recalled, and after two years their tenants moved back to the Bronx and eventually to Puerto Rico.
Marie Zirkel, a longtime Farmingdale resident, died Monday at age 80. "Re," as her friends and family knew her, "was a wonderful example for Christian women," said her husband, a former deacon at St. Kilian Roman Catholic Church in Farmingdale and a longtime editor of The Tablet, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Brooklyn.
The Zirkels were a "power couple" in progressive Roman Catholic circles on Long Island, and were at the center of a well-publicized incident three years ago when they wore anti-war T-shirts to a local mall and Don Zirkel was arrested.
Marie Zirkel was a church lector and eucharistic minister who was deeply involved in church-related activities, including adult education, parish councils, baptism and marriage preparation, Pax Christi and Voice of the Faithful, a group critical of the church hierarchy.
In March 2008, the Zirkels attended a peace rally outside the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove wearing white T-shirts splotched with red and emblazoned with a simple message about the fatalities of the Iraq War: "4,000 troops, 1 million Iraqis dead. Enough."
When they went inside for a cup of coffee at the food court, police and security were called. Don Zirkel was arrested when he refused to turn the T-shirt inside out, though Marie Zirkel was not arrested. Charges of criminal trespassing and resisting arrest eventually were dropped.
The couple knew each other as neighbors growing up in Queens Village, where at age 17 Marie became a substitute mother for her six siblings when their mother died. She was an honors graduate of Jamaica High School and later earned an associate degree from Nassau Community College. She also graduated from the Diocese of Rockville Centre Pastoral Institute.
The couple was deeply affected by their work with the "Cursillo" spiritual renewal movement in the Diocese of Brooklyn and their contact with black and Latino families, Don Zirkel said. When they went to rent their house in Hicksville to a family of color, he recalled, "we both absolutely agreed we would do it."
He said most of their neighbors "were very, very upset at us, including some people who had been friends with us for years." But others were also "very supportive."
Marie Zirkel is survived by three daughters, Jeannie of Montgomery, Mary of Circleville, and Annie of Ann Arbor, Mich.; four sons, Joseph of Westbury, John of Toms River, N.J., Paul of Blue Point, and Jim of Farmingdale; 26 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
A wake is scheduled for Friday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. at Arthur F. White Funeral Home in Farmingdale. A funeral Mass will be offered Saturday at 9:45 a.m. at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Church in Wyandanch.
The family requests donations be made to the church in Wyandanch.