Sister Grace Regina Wingenfeld was just 15 upon entering the convent in 1927, an era when becoming a novice at that age was common. In September, she marked 90 years as a nun, and on Nov. 9 she turned 106.
The oldest nun on Long Island and one of the oldest in the United States, Wingenfeld died Saturday at the Dominican Sisters of Amityville’s motherhouse in Amityville.
A mathematics whiz, she was a legend among the Dominican Sisters and continued to profess her love of the subject into her final days.
“To me, she was just such an inspiration,” said Janice Woodiwiss-Schneider, a great-niece of Wingenfeld who lives in Tampa, Florida. “She just really had so many awesome stories.”
Sister Patricia Hanvey, assistant prioress of the order, said Monday, “The Sisters of St. Dominic of Amityville naturally feel the loss of Sister Grace Regina, but in this beautiful season of waiting — which is Advent — we know how long she has waited to be with her God. And so we now trust that Sister Grace joins the Dominican Choir of Saints in praying that our mission continues!”
Wingenfeld worked for nearly two decades at Molloy College, earned a Ph.D. from Fordham University, and even spent a year at Covenant House in Manhattan ministering to runaways.
She became most famous among the Dominican Sisters for her skills not just as a mathematician, but in reaching the most reluctant of students and getting them to share her love for the subject.
Sister Lenore Toscano, who brought Wingenfeld into the order’s Opening Word program that taught immigrant women English and math, called her “brilliant” in an interview for a Newsday profile of Wingenfeld in July.
“She prepared the women diligently, professionally, enthusiastically — and was quite a taskmaster, to tell you the truth,” Toscano said.
Wingenfeld told Newsday she had a simple formula for getting recalcitrant students to embrace math: “When you like something, you can sell it,” she said.
“I loved teaching, especially math,” she added. “I loved it and I got the girls to love it.”
Over the decades, she made her mark on younger nuns in the order, showing them that no type of professional work should be off-limits, Toscano said.
“She was incredibly influential in encouraging us as young women to pursue any field we really wanted to pursue and use all the gifts and talents that we had,” she said.
Sister Stephanie Still, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Religious Retirement Office in Washington, has said that while the organization does not keep a database of nuns who have passed 100, reaching even 105 “would be rare.”
Wingenfeld grew up in Brooklyn and attended schools where the Dominican sisters taught. After entering the order and undergoing initial training, she taught for about two decades in Brooklyn and then spent eight years teaching in Puerto Rico.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s in mathematics from St. John’s University, as well as a doctorate in counseling and guidance from Fordham. At Molloy, her duties included heading the guidance department.
Wingenfeld also gained an interest in Eastern prayer practices, and for a time gave classes and workshops on body, mind and spirit.
A wake is scheduled Tuesday, with prayers at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. in St. Albert’s Chapel at the order’s motherhouse. A morning prayer service will take place Wednesday at 10:10 a.m. in the chapel, followed by a funeral Mass at 10:30 a.m.
Wingenfeld will be buried in the sisters’ cemetery on the order’s grounds in Amityville.