JAMAICA — At 100 years and counting, Rosita Lewis is truly living her best life.
Proudly wearing a sparkling crown bedazzled with the three digits marking her centennial year and a white and gold glitter sash, the Trinidadian-born great grandmother celebrated like a queen, surrounded by family, on June 11.
“You all got it wrong — I only turned 50,” exclaimed Rosita during the birthday cake cutting portion of the evening, drawing a roar of laughter and waves of smiles.
All eyes were on Rosita that night as family and friends gathered in the living room of the Jamaica, Queens home to sing happy birthday — a song she has had the privilege to hear sung to her since 1921. Yet, one would be corrected by the birthday girl herself if you were to refer to her fellow St. Teresa of Avila parishioners as just friends. That’s because, for her, those parishioners were as connected to her as if her own kin.
“I’m still a St. Teresa child,” she said. “I love the church.”
Rosita has attended the South Ozone Park parish for more than 40 years. It was the parish that became her home away from home. She made sure to say that she would never leave her parish or the faith. When she first came to St. Teresa of Avila, she joined the faith formation programs as a catechist, then later joined the different prayer groups.
And then there were her rosaries. No matter what you looked like, and even if you weren’t Catholic, you could have owned one of Rosita’s rosaries. She said that over the years she’s given them away, made them for anyone she felt in her heart could use some uplifting, and told of the time she donated rosaries for charities in Haiti.
Florestine Mark recalled the first time, many years ago, that she received her “Rosita rosary.”
“I know that the way it was made, it was made to me with love,” Mark said. “If you’re looking at how it’s made, it’s made with patience and care.”
Mark looks to Rosita as a mother figure in her life, and in many ways, she said, Rosita reminds her of her own mother.
“I love her,” Mark said. “From the very beginning, when I first met her.”
Yet, there’s something about Rosita besides her rosary making that draws others to her. Parishioner Cilotte Bruny summed it up with a French-Creole word “la coquette” which means “well put-together.”
“I say ‘oh, la coquette’ — she’s always on-point,” Bruny said. “She’s always Sunday best with the lipstick and her hat.”
Bruny said before COVID lockdowns, Rosita was always one to “make a grand entrance” when she would step into the church.
Fashionable, sassy, and faithful are words that were used to describe the celebrant. But when it comes to their bond, it’s more than what she looks like on the outside, it’s what’s on the inside.
“Every day, it’s like we became family because the parish has all kinds of functions and we’re always together,” Bruny said. “The bond is formed.”
Every year before the fall school semester, Bruny puts the Haiti school supply request in the parish bulletin. Without a hiccup, Rosita is always helping and supporting her project, according to Bruny.
Rosita’s popularity speaks for itself. On her birthday — June 11 — she received about 100 phone calls from people who greeted her. She said she’d return the messages after the party was over, once things wound down.
Asked about her special talent, Rosita said she’s self-taught, and began her rosary-making apprenticeship the day her daughter Gillian Lewis asked her to make her one.
“No one ever taught me,” she said. “I started trying to make it, but it wasn’t so good.”
“The first one, my daughter Gillian asked me to make a chain rosary,” Rosita remembers. “She insisted that I make it. I sent for the materials and I did it on my own. From then, I’m still doing it. I can still make rosaries.”
Since then, she has fashioned countless rosaries and insists her miniature ministry has one mission: to give to others.
“I give them all away,” Rosita said. “That’s all I do. I only need one.”
Her faith has been central to her life, more so her identity, even before she emigrated to the States. Calling herself a “cradle Catholic” since she was introduced to the faith at a young age, Rosita made her Communion in Trinidad & Tobago at six years old. She then joined the church choir and learned Latin.
“Wherever I go, I’m still a Catholic,” she said. “I love my church and there’s no reason for me to leave. I think I’m going to die a Catholic,” Rosita said. “I’ve always loved it.”
Whether it was hearing her grandchildren recalling memories of their childhood with Rosita, or watching her great-granddaughter running around in front of her, joy radiated from her face down to her feet. After she grabbed her cane and sashayed out of her chair, she entertained all her guests with a little dance, displaying energy that was louder than the boombox playing music outside.
Standing in front of the rows of birthday cards lined up on one table and the vases of flowers that dominated the other table, Rosita shared her wisdom with anyone who could listen.
“My secret is, if they would learn, be satisfied with who you are, what you are, and what you can do. Be nice to everyone. Love everyone regardless of who they are,” Rosita said. “You may be better off than them in a certain position, but that doesn’t mean much to the Lord.”
As she spoke, the room grew quiet; everyone was drawn into her aura as if it were just another ordinary day.
“We are all one regardless of the color of the skin, or whatever we are,” she said. “We are all one family in Christ. Love each other as He loves us. That’s my motto, my secret.”