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LI nuns cope with deaths, falling numbers

Mary Hughes, O.P., prioress of the Sisters of

Mary Hughes, O.P., prioress of the Sisters of St. Dominic in Amityville. (Jan. 31, 2013) Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

A wave of deaths has struck the motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of Amityville.

Occurring over two weeks in January, the deaths of nine sisters were unrelated and not wholly unexpected, leaders of the order said.

But even for a community that believes fervently in a joyous afterlife, the loss of so many sisters, elders and companions in such short order is painful. It also reflects the graying demographics of Catholic orders across Long Island and the nation.

The numbers of the Dominican Sisters of Amityville have been shrinking for decades. There were 1,725 in 1965; now there are 450. Their decline parallels that of religious sisters across the nation, down from 179,954 in 1965 to 54,018 in 2012, even as the number of self-identified Catholics in the nation rose from 48.5 million to 78.2 million during the same period.


Age, ailments take toll

"One was a sister who'd been on a feeding tube for a long period of time," said the prioress, Sister Mary Hughes, last Sunday as the community prepared for the wake of Sister Mary Helaine McGill, 94, who died on Jan. 23. She was the last of the nine to go. "Several had advanced dementia and were unable to speak or recognize people who visited them; the last sister that we'll bury this week was blind, hard of hearing and in a wheelchair. Her body just got tired. With each sister, we wouldn't have prayed they lived longer. In that sense, none of these was a tragic death."

All the deaths were of natural causes, Hughes said.

Sister Madeline Brewi was the first. She died at 101 on Jan. 11, a Babylon woman who took her vows in 1929 and spent 85 years in service, many of them teaching at St. Bartholomew and Commercial High in Queens, and All Saints and St. Michael in Brooklyn.

Sister Anne Gillen, 92, died a day later. Sister Kathleen Curtin, 87, and Sister Grace Edward Pappert, 97, died the day after that. The others followed.

All were buried in the small cemetery behind the motherhouse on Albany Avenue.


Difficult time

"They are our family," said Sister Charlene Kay. "It's difficult especially when one follows the other. Each sister knows that coming here is the last stop, and all these deaths are further reminders of what we're here preparing for."

Many of the nuns had spent their lives teaching and leading in Catholic schools from the Verrazano Bridge to Montauk. They ran summer camps for children and delivered Communion to homebound elderly, devised programs to help learning-disabled students at Molloy College, and expanded the order's work in high schools and universities in Puerto Rico.

The order sponsors ministries including The Opening Word, which teaches English to immigrant women in Wyandanch; St. Agnes Academic High in College Point; Dominican Village, a nonprofit retirement and assisted-living facility in Amityville; and Homecoming, a gardening program in Amityville. Members of the community also run subsidized housing for the homeless, soup kitchens, outreach centers, and a variety of programs for women who are trafficked.

The service of the departed spanned two eras in church life, with most taking vows decades before the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, assistant prioress Sister Elaine Jahrsdoerfer said.

After illness or old age made independent life difficult, the nuns moved to Amityville, where until earlier this year about 75 nuns lived in the infirmary. About 40 nuns needing less care live in a building next door.


Fewer take vows

Their sisterhood is shrinking. The youngest sister is in her 40s. Their average age is 77. Last year, 26 sisters and lay associates died; just one woman is set to take final vows to join the order this year.

"It's nothing like the groups that used to come in, 30 to 40 people," said Hughes, a past president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, whose members represent about 80 percent of Catholic women in religious orders in the United States. "Now when a woman comes, she often comes by herself. The replenishment is not a person-for-person kind of thing."

Last Monday, before McGill's wake, Hughes said that as dire as those numbers might sound, the order has weathered worse. "Will it be as large? I don't think so," she said. "But go back to our founding stories: four sisters came here from Germany, one got sick and died. We never should have flourished. We always live with mystery, awaiting what God has to unfold."

As freezing rain poured outside, a few dozen people -- sisters, former students and members of McGill's biological family -- gathered in the chapel for her wake.

A gray-haired nun in an electric wheelchair read from the biblical Book of Luke. A man as sturdy and tall as a linebacker wept when he recalled the woman who taught him in elementary school 70 years ago, the sound of her voice back then, and in the last years the handwriting on her letters that got bigger as her vision got worse.

"She passed all that godliness on to us," he said. "Not that we deserved it, but it came our way, and we knew it."


At a glance


The declining numbers of the Dominican Sisters of Amityville

1965: 1,725

2013: 450

The declining numbers of nuns nationwide

1965: 179,954

2012: 54,018

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