The Daughters of Charity have been a staple in Brooklyn for over 40 years, but a call to serve elsewhere has them packing their bags to leave.
The traces of the Daughters’ work will still be present, as they’ve left an indelible mark on the borough of Kings, especially the Bedford-Stuyvesant community. Though they’ll be leaving Kings County, they will remain in the diocese in several locations in Queens: their residence and a nursing home in Bayside; Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Church, Bayside; and St. John’s University, Jamaica.
“The Daughters of Charity as a community are called to be mobile and available to go where the needs are,” said Sister Mary Beth Kubera, D.C., provincial councilor on the provincial leadership team for the Province of St. Louise, which stretches from Texas to the East Coast, including the location in Brooklyn.
“That’s been the case since the Daughters of Charity were founded in 1633, and we would like to continue to have our sisters be mobile and available to go where they are needed and where they’re sent. We believe that we are still sent to be missionaries wherever God wants us.”
Known as the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, the Daughters of Charity first arrived in Brooklyn in 1831 from Emmitsburg, Md., with the main purpose of teaching children at St. James Asylum and Free School.
Other ministries included serving at Cathedral Free School, St. Mary’s Institute, the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum Society, St. Paul’s Asylum, St. Paul’s Industrial School, St. Philomena’s Academy and St. Joseph’s Asylum.
After establishing a strong presence, the Daughters left Brooklyn, but in 1971, they were called to return to Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the poorest areas of the borough at that time. Five members of the congregation – Sisters Beatrice Peck, D.C., Mary Bernadette Szymczak, D.C., Mary Josephine Hill, D.C., Mary White, D.C., and Mary Rose McGready, D.C. – were stationed at St. John the Baptist parish with the Vincentian priests who had served there for over 100 years.
At the parish, the Daughters served as catechists, ran the faith formation program, coordinated summer camps and donated whatever funds they had to the parish and parishioners.
In addition to these roles, they were active in Catholic Charities of Brooklyn; St. Anthony-St. Alphonsus parish, Greenpoint; the New Horizons adult education program; Holy Rosary School, Bedford-Stuyvesant; and New Beginnings Charter School, Bedford-Stuyvesant.
The Daughters were also instrumental in starting the St. John’s Bread and Life food pantry in 1982 at the parish. Despite its humble beginnings, the pantry now serves over 2,000 people per day and grew so large that it was forced to upgrade to a more adequate space, now on Lexington Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Over the years, many sisters have served at St. John’s Church, currently a combined parish with Our Lady of Good Counsel. The last five sisters to have lived there – Mary Ellen Thomas, D.C., Maria Capobianco, D.C., Kathleen Cevette, D.C., Rose Marie Rizzo, D.C., and Mary Ellen Lacy, D.C. – will all begin new ministries elsewhere this summer.
With the help of the Daughters, the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood has undergone drastic changes. In addition to the thriving food pantry, the area has seen the development of many outreach programs that have aided in improving the quality of life.
“That’s why we came,” said Sister Mary Ellen, local superior of the Province of St. Louise who lived and ministered at the parish for the past 14 years.
“We were commissioned to reach out to the poor, the sick and the abandoned. There’s still a need, but it’s being addressed by our parishioners.”
On March 15, the parish hosted a farewell Mass for the Daughters, where the priests and parishioners had the chance to properly thank the Sisters for their years of dedicated service.
Father Emmet Nolan, C.M., pastor, celebrated the liturgy and said that it was very emotional, since the parish would be losing a presence to which it had grown accustomed for so many years. However, he said that the Mass was a celebration to show the parish’s great love for the Daughters of Charity.
Sister Mary Ellen said that the Mass also allowed the Daughters to show their gratitude to the people that they served during their time in Brooklyn.
The parishioners prepared a video commemorating the service of the Daughters over the years. About 20 Daughters who had served at the parish returned for the Mass and received a special blessing from Father Nolan as they continued to live out the mission established by St. Vincent de Paul.
Though the Sisters may no longer be physically present at the parish, the outreach work that they began will continue under the direction of the parishioners, who were inspired by the congregation’s work.
“The people said that they were graced (by having the Daughters), but we were graced by the people,” said Sister Mary Ellen, who will soon move to St. Charles Lwanga Church in Downtown Detroit.
“It was a legacy of God’s presence, both in the parish and in the service that was part of the parish center for so many years.”
Sister Mary Beth said she hopes that the Daughters always leave a legacy of love – no matter where they serve – in ministering with mercy and compassion.
“I hope that we’ve left with them the idea, the value and the conviction that it’s really important to reach out to those who are on the margins of society, the most poor and vulnerable in our society,” she said.
“I think that’s what we leave behind. I’m very confident that the people we have touched understand that, and hopefully they will pass it on.”
As for Father Nolan, he said he will miss the sisters, whom he called the parish’s “Mothers,” but he’s eternally grateful for the impact they’ve had on the parish community.
“Simple, humble charity. That’s what it is,” he said. “They (Daughters) serve simply, humbly and they do unbelievable things. The Daughters are just the best.
“You almost never know they’re there, but they do incredible things and you hardly notice it because that is their charism. Simple, humble service.”