Seven decades of faith, education and love – that is the legacy the Holy Union Sisters have left to the people of Astoria as their ministry at Immaculate Conception parish came to a close this spring.
“They’ve been an integral part of the parish,” explained Msgr. Fernando Ferrarese, who has come to know and respect these women religious in his nine years as pastor. “They’ve given us so many years of ministry. So many people were touched by their faith, their love and their compassion.”
Due to advancing age and health care needs, the religious order’s leadership decided last year to relocate the Astoria sisters to their motherhouse in Fall River, Mass., which has assisted living and nursing facilities. Sisters Bridget McGettigan and Jeanne Stegmann were the last to move out of the convent in mid-March.
With their departure, only two Holy Union Sisters now remain in active ministry in the Brooklyn Diocese: Sister Alice Michael, faith formation coordinator at Blessed Sacrament, Cypress Hills, and Sister Margaret McCabe, a chaplain at Rikers Island’s Davoren Center in Queens.
To thank the sisters for their 71 years of faithful service in Astoria, the parish held a Mass of thanksgiving in their honor on March 25, the feast of the Assumption and the date on which the sisters annually renew their religious vows. Nearly 20 sisters came by bus from their motherhouse for a noontime Mass and reception.
“We celebrate you and surround you with our love today as a very, very grateful people for your ministry here at Immaculate Conception parish,” Msgr. Ferrarese said as he welcomed the sisters.
A standing-room-only crowd of parishioners and alumni, along with half a dozen priests on the altar, including Msgr. Charles Boccio, pastor emeritus, were a testament to that gratitude.
“Realize what you have done here will never be forgotten, not only for the people at this Mass, but for the many people throughout the world who have been touched by the Holy Union Sisters,” the monsignor said.
The community of Sisters of the Holy Union of the Sacred Hearts (S.U.S.C.) started in France to educate youth in the 1840s. Arriving at Immaculate Conception in 1946, they educated thousands of children through the years. Sister Jeanne Stegmann was the last sister to serve as principal of the parish school, 1980-2003.
As the needs of the community grew, the sisters responded and expanded their outreach to include catechesis, a homeless shelter, food pantry, care for the sick and homebound, and consolation ministry.
Their departure is a tremendous loss to the parish in terms of manpower for these still-active ministries, which must now be taken up by clergy and laity.
“You leave a great legacy here at Immaculate Conception parish,” Msgr. Ferrarese said in his homily.
He spoke about how the women religious taught generations of children and families, not only in class lessons, but also through their daily lives and activities, to put God first. Comparing the sisters to stained-glass windows, he said their lives reflect the light of God, and show “the pattern of holiness that God wants.”
“I speak for all of us here today when I say it will never be the same without you, but we will never be the same because of you,” he said.
After the homily, sisters renewed their religious vows. Among them were several alumnae, including Sisters Margaret McCabe, Bernadette Sullivan, Marie Baldi and Mary Ellen Ryan.
“I grew up loving the Holy Union Sisters. That’s why I joined them,” said Sister Marie Baldi, who used to help the sisters with grocery shopping and chores. “They were very good to me, to my family, and they taught me my faith.”
Sister Mary Ellen called the sisters she knew in her youth, “a wonderful gift from God,” because they taught her “what it means to be a loving disciple of Jesus.”
Debbie (Kelly) Giokas graduated from Immaculate Conception School over 40 years ago, but felt like a schoolgirl seeing her old teachers. “They were very loving, very caring. They gave it their all,” she said.
She especially admired her third-grade teacher, Sister Mary Lou Simcoe, formerly Sister Mary Augustin, who was present at the reception.
“I went over and told her she had a great impact on me,” said Giokas. “Then she hugged me.”
Sister Mary Lou taught third and seventh grades at Immaculate Conception in the 1960s when each grade had over 100 students.
“We were very much with the people, not separated from them, and the sisters were very involved in everything at the parish,” she said.
Taking Care of People
Sister Bridget McGettigan ministered at the parish for 31 years, most recently serving as director of the pastoral outreach office. She oversaw the food pantry, visited the elderly and tended to the bereaved.
Her role, she said simply, was “taking care of needy people.”
At the reception, people lined up to hug Sister Bridget, whose blue eyes lit up as she received each and every person.
“All of these people, they’re all part of my life,” she told a visitor. “It’s just overwhelming. God is showing me how much He loves me through the people that love me.”
Peter Kraljic was among those loving well-wishers.
“Monsignor (Ferrarese) organized a wonderful event, but a sad event. It’s sad to see them leave,” he said.
“It’s a reflection of the loss of vocations of women and men into religious life and priesthood. It overshadows a sad reality,” which Kraljic believes can be overcome through prayer for vocations.