Diocesan News

Amityville Sisters Built a Legacy Starting From Brooklyn Origins

The sisters taught in more than two dozen schools in the Diocese of Brooklyn. In this photo from 1952, the sisters guide a group of first graders outside American Martyrs School in Bayside. (Photos: Courtesy of Sisters of St. Dominic of Amityville)

AMITYVILLE — Their religious order is called the Sisters of St. Dominic of Amityville, but they have ties to the Diocese of Brooklyn that date back to the mid-19th century.

Over the decades, the sisters have taught in dozens of diocesan schools, established three hospitals (St. Catherine in Williamsburg, St. Cecilia Maternity Hospital in East Williamsburg, and Mary Immaculate Hospital in Jamaica), and have cared for thousands of orphaned children. ​​

The religious order is marking its 170th anniversary this year with celebrations that include the opening of “Alive in Joy and Hope,” a permanent exhibition at the motherhouse in Amityville, New York.

It all began with a trans-Atlantic voyage in 1853. Four members of the Sisters of St. Dominic left the Holy Cross Monastery in the German city of Regensburg and set sail for the U.S. to teach the children of German immigrants.  

“The original plans were to go to Pennsylvania, but a number of twists and turns landed them in Brooklyn at Most Holy Trinity Parish in Williamsburg,” explained Dominican Sister Margaret Kavanagh, guardian of the Motherhouse Heritage Center in Amityville.

The twists and turns included the fact that the Pennsylvania pastor failed to show up at the dock when their ship arrived in New York, leaving the nuns stranded. A priest from Most Holy Trinity parish agreed to take them in.

Dominican Sister Bernadette Izzo, a judge on the Diocese of Brooklyn Tribunal, is in awe of those first sisters. 

“I don’t think I could have done it, leaving my own country, getting on a boat, and winding up in a foreign country,” she said. “But these women were so courageous and on fire with love of God and the Gospel.”

In the 1870s, the congregation was growing, and the sisters moved to a farm in Amityville. From that point on, they were known as the Sisters of St. Dominic of Amityville.

At the community’s high point, the sisters boasted 1,600 members. Currently, there are 280 sisters.

One of them is Dominican Sister Flor Buruca, a native of El Salvador who professed her vows in 2012  — making her one of the recent members of the community. “I’m very blessed to be part of the congregation,” she said.

She met the sisters when she was 27 years old and served as a volunteer with a youth group in Huntington, New York. 

“I think I was drawn to the sisters because they were so happy and down to earth. They had such a positive attitude,” Sister Flor remembered.

These days, she leads the Visitation Mission in Copiague, New York, a temporary home for immigrant women and children that provides food, shelter, clothing, and other services. 

“They come here, and then we care for them. We help them to go through the process by which they can find a place to live. And we help them with financial services, ESL [English as a Second Language] programs, things like that,” she explained. 

Sister Patricia Koehler, Sister Pat Hanvey, Prioress Peggy McVetty and former Prioress Sister Mary Pat Neylon (left to right) cut the ribbon to mark the opening of “Alive in Joy and Hope” at the motherhouse in honor of the congregation’s 170th anniversary.

The mission also delivers food to underprivileged families on Long Island.

As a naturalized U.S. citizen, Sister Flor said she feels a special calling to help immigrants, many of whom are escaping dire circumstances. “I came here when I was 22 years old. At the time, there was a civil war in El Salvador, so a lot of people were coming to the U.S. fleeing from violence and all the things that were happening in my country,” she recalled.

Sister Flor regularly returns to El Salvador, where she works with organizations that build houses and sponsor after-school programs.

Over their history, the sisters have been willing to expand beyond the New York metropolitan area. In 1910, they established schools and clinics in Puerto Rico, and many of the sisters still minister there. 

For many years, the motherhouse was located at 157 Montrose Ave. in Williamsburg. In 1953, the sisters established the Queen of the Rosary Motherhouse in Amityville.

Still, more changes were on the way. “While our primary mission was teaching, eventually, especially after Vatican II, the sisters broadened their ministries to include social workers, attorneys, and more,” Sr. Margaret explained.

As a tribunal judge, Sr. Bernadette is required to be well-versed in canon law. Her role includes helping petitioners and respondents through annulment proceedings. 

But first and foremost, she’s a sister. 

“I’m always invoking the Holy Spirit when I sit to write a judgment,” she explained. “And even before that, when I have to do depositions with our petitioners and respondents, I begin those depositions with a prayer invoking the Holy Spirit to be with us.”

“That is a Dominican way of living life,” she said, “to contemplate the word of God.”

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