Hundreds attended the funeral of Sister Margaret Smyth at St. John the Evangelist in Riverhead on Thursday. Smyth was the founder of North Fork Spanish Apostolate and was a beloved member of the community.   Credit: Randee Daddona

The first time Salvadoran immigrant Serapio Velasquez met Sister Margaret Smyth, she was standing in the King Kullen parking lot in Riverhead flagging down Latinos to invite them to church and her new mission.

It was 1997, and Smyth was founding the North Fork Spanish Apostolate to minister to an often forgotten, sometimes exploited community. The local parish, St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church, didn’t even have Spanish Masses yet.

That would soon change.

This week, with the death on Monday of an 83-year-old nun many called the “Mother Teresa of Long Island,” Smyth’s impact was evident after a quarter-century of ministry in Suffolk County.

Sister Margaret Smyth, executive director of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate,...

Sister Margaret Smyth, executive director of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, at her Riverhead office in 2013. Credit: Randee Daddona

A wake Wednesday night was standing-room-only as Latinos packed the 800-seat church. Grown men gave testimonies about “Hermana Margarita” — “Sister Margaret” — and then collapsed into the arms of friends, sobbing as if they had lost their own mother.

Smyth “was the principal base of the Latino community,” a key figure who brought the community together and touched the lives of thousands of people, Velasquez said in Spanish.

The two-hour wake “was really a Hispanic love affair for Margaret,” said the Rev. John Cervini, who now celebrates Spanish Masses at the parish.

On Thursday morning, the church filled again for her funeral. This time it was a mix of Latinos and those from the wider community, including Smyth’s relatives and members of her religious order, the Sisters of St. Dominic of Amityville.

It was a rarity: Typically, funerals for Dominican sisters are held at the order’s Mother House in Amityville. But Smyth was so integrated into the Latino community on the East End, so beloved by so many, the sisters decided to hold the funeral in Riverhead, said Sister Peggy McVetty, the head of the order.

Parishioners said they were devastated by the loss of Smyth, a constant presence on the streets, in homes and on farms who knew intimately hundreds if not thousands of families.

Hundreds attended a wake and funeral that was held for...

Hundreds attended a wake and funeral that was held for Sister Margaret Smyth, 83, founder of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, at St. John the Evangelist in Riverhead on Thursday. Credit: Randee Daddona

A dynamo, she offered help in everything from immigration applications to owed wages to spiritual formation. She recruited volunteer lawyers, accountants and other professionals to help.

She even started her own ID card system that local police departments and banks recognized for migrants who did not have standard legal documents.

“We have been left like orphans” after Smyth’s death, Juana Huertas, an immigrant from Colombia, said in Spanish.

Smyth had an unusual combination of street smarts, charm and a sense of humor — all employed in carrying out the mission of Jesus Christ, parishioners and colleagues said.

And she seemed to know everybody, Cervini said.

When they used to go out for late breakfast after Sunday Masses, “you couldn’t have a meal with her without the busboys coming up” and thanking her, Cervini said.

“Every dishwasher, every waitress, even some of the owners or the managers … wanted her to know she started them on the right path.”

When she first started a Spanish Mass at St. John’s, just five people showed up, Smyth once told Newsday. Within a decade, Masses were standing room only with 1,000 people.

She helped migrants the rest of the world seemed to have forgotten, parishioners said.

Filermina Sierra-Ortiz, 36, an immigrant from Mexico, said that in 2009 she and her children were trapped in their first-floor apartment by floods so high she could not open the front door. Firefighters rescued them.

They lost everything, and had little money since her husband worked in a greenhouse for $7 an hour, she said. But Smyth came to their rescue, helping with food, clothing and medicine. When they ended up living in a frigid trailer, Smyth helped them move, she said.

The nun encouraged Sierra-Ortiz to keep her 11 children in school, and stayed in regular contact with her through the years.

And somehow, Smyth did the same with hundreds of families, parishioners said.

Marta Torres of Riverhead holding Yaiza Boch Fuentes, 2, attended...

Marta Torres of Riverhead holding Yaiza Boch Fuentes, 2, attended a wake and funeral for Sister Margaret Smyth in Riverhead on Thursday. Credit: Randee Daddona

On Thursday, Sierra-Ortiz was in tears. “I think: Why did God take her?” she said in Spanish. “We still need her in this world.”

“She was like our mother who took care of us,” she added. “We will never be able to forget her.”

As the funeral concluded, Smyth’s body and coffin were carried out to a waiting hearse. Parishioners stood along the road, holding helium-filled white balloons.

As the hearse departed to bring Smyth to the nuns’ Mother House and graveyard in Amityville, the parishioners released the balloons into the sky — as if to hope a little part of them could accompany “Hermana Margarita” as she goes to heaven.

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