One is 105 years old and will mark 90 years as a religious sister in September. Another is 103 and still attends daily Mass. A third is 101 and left Ireland at age 15 to become a nun in the United States. For many of the faithful, nuns are the unsung heroines of the Catholic Church. Here are the stories of three on Long Island who have passed the century mark.
‘I loved teaching, especially math’
Sister Grace Regina Wingenfeld entered religious life when she was 15. In September, she will mark 90 years as a nun and on Nov. 9 she turns 106.
A legend among the Sisters of St. Dominic of Amityville, she was an accomplished math teacher for decades — known for getting the most recalcitrant of students to learn the science of numbers.
Her explanation of that talent? “When you like something, you can sell it,” she said.
“She’s brilliant,” said Sister Lenore Toscano, who brought Wingenfeld into the order’s Opening Word program that taught immigrant women English and math. “She prepared the women diligently, professionally, enthusiastically — and was quite a taskmaster, to tell you the truth.”
Wingenfeld grew up in Brooklyn and attended schools where the Dominican sisters taught. She entered the order in 1927, at a time when it was not unusual to be a novice at 15. She taught for about two decades in Brooklyn, then spent eight years teaching in Puerto Rico.
She had a major impact on younger nuns in the order as the years passed.
“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,” Toscano said.
Wingenfeld is in good shape for her age — until recently, she carried her own tray in the cafeteria and served as a lector, reading Bible passages at daily Masses at the order’s motherhouse in Amityville, where she lives. Her hearing has declined, and visitors often must write down questions and comments for her.
She makes clear that teaching and math are her passions.
“I loved teaching, especially math,” she said. “I loved it and I got the girls to love it.”
Wingenfeld 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 University.
Along the way, she spent 18 years at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, where her duties included heading the guidance department, and a year at Covenant House in Manhattan, ministering to runaways. She also gained an interest in Eastern prayer practices, and for a time gave classes and workshops on body, mind and spirit.
“I was captivated by her and her message and became one of her groupies,” said Cathy Katz of Huntington, who took one of Wingenfeld’s seminars. “She’s amazing.”
Decades later, some students still come back to visit, said Kathy Dixon of Stewart Manor, a niece of Wingenfeld’s.
Sister Stephanie Still, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Religious Retirement Office in Washington, said the organization does not keep count of how many nuns have passed 100, but said that reaching 105 “would be rare.”
“I rejoice with her that she has been able to live her vocation so long and serve the people of God for such a long period,” Still said.
Math has been an essential equation in her life, Wingenfeld said.
“I share what I love, I love what I teach,” she said. “So many people are afraid of mathematics. It’s beautiful.”
‘I enjoyed wherever I was sent’
Sister Edward Joseph Murphy is 103 and still goes to daily Mass.
She is a regular in the dining room at the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood motherhouse, where she lives among younger nuns rather than down the road at the order’s nursing home.
She attributes her relatively good physical and mental state to her penchant for long walks — and to God.
“I don’t have a secret that anyone else wouldn’t have, but I do have a lot of contact with the Lord and his son Jesus and his mother Mary,” said Murphy, who turns 104 on Oct. 31.
“I’m so grateful to be here,” she added. “I’ve had so many blessings that I couldn’t even begin to count them. God is good.”
Murphy is among four nuns in the order who are over 100. The others are Sister Mary Edward McGuiness, who turned 103 in April, Sister Rita Josephine Lisanti, 102, and Sister Francis Gerard Kress, 102.
Sister Helen Kearney, head of the order, says the four have benefited from their relationship with God.
“These women are deeply spiritual,” Kearney said. “Many of the things that cause disease and stress, I think they turn many things over to that trust in their faith and in God.”
Murphy, she said, has been a strong presence in the order during nearly 87 years as a religious sister. “She’s got a lot to say,” Kearney said. “There’s a peace about her and a confidence.”
“She is involved at 103,” said Kearney, adding that Murphy attends most events at the sprawling convent.
Murphy grew up in Belle Harbor, Queens. On the sands of Rockaway, she developed her habit of long walks and came to love the ocean. She entered the order on Sept. 8, 1932, at age 18.
She spent years teaching, served as an assistant mistress of novices at the motherhouse, and later worked in parish outreach at Sacred Heart Parish in North Merrick. Years later, parishioners still come to visit her, Kearney said.
Amid her work, Murphy earned a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s in French from St. John’s University, and a master’s in theology from St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, south of Buffalo. She also earned certification in French from the famed Université de Paris-a la Sorbonne.
“Everything I did I thought was wonderful,” Murphy said. “I just enjoyed wherever I was sent and whatever I was doing.”
She is doing her best not to slow down. Though she has had to use a wheelchair for the last two years, she still plays Wii bowling.
Helping build America ‘in a very small way’
Cecilia Moloughney was 15 when she made two monumental decisions: She resolved to become a nun and to leave her homeland of Ireland for America.
Now, after celebrating her 101st birthday on June 23, she looks back with great joy and without regrets at devoting her life to God, even though it meant being separated from her family for most of her life.
“We decided that’s a good thing to do,” she recalled of her decision to travel to the United States in 1931 “to help build the future of America, in a very small way.”
The pivotal time came when nuns from the Ursuline Sisters of Tildonk, based in Blue Point, visited County Tipperary to look for recruits. Moloughney and an older sister both wanted to join and asked their parents’ permission. Their parents thought deeply about it, knowing they would rarely — or perhaps never again — see their daughters.
“Daddy said to Mom, Mom told me afterwards, he said, ‘If we don’t let them go and God wants them, he would take them. And if he takes them, we don’t even have them. But if we let them go, they’ll be doing good work and they will be close to God and they will be close to us,’ ” Moloughney recalled, her Irish accent still strong.
Moloughney did see her parents again, though she did not make it back to Ireland for a decade. After that, she visited every few years. As time went on, and as the church loosened its rules, she returned once a year.
Moloughney says one of the highlights of her 86 years as a nun was teaching seventh grade from 1937 to 1949 in a school in Ozone Park, Queens, run by the Ursulines. One year, there were 62 students in a class.
“It was the happiest years of my life because they were wonderful” students, Moloughney said. “They were good thinkers.”
She later spent a decade as director of novices at the Ursulines’ headquarters in Blue Point. She returned to teaching throughout the 1960s, at St. William the Abbot and Holy Family Catholic schools in Seaford and Huntington, respectively.
She went on to work in adult religious education for the Diocese of Rockville Centre. Her last job, until she was in her late 80s, was as director of religious education in Greenwich, Connecticut, where she worked with children.
Along the way, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English from St. John’s College in Brooklyn, which was the forerunner of the university in Queens, and master’s degrees in education and in administration and religious studies from Fordham University.
“She’s an amazing woman, even at 101 interested in learning,” said Sister Joanne Callahan, head of the Ursulines’ United States province.
Moloughney is legally blind, but still plays the piano — usually an electric keyboard, with earphones — at the Maria Regina nursing facility run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood.
She said she feels pretty good for 101, with the only difference with past years that she gets tired a little more easily. “I could have a nice snooze every afternoon,” Moloughney said.
She remains sharp and interested in the world. And if she could have one wish, it would be to visit Ireland.