ROCKAWAY BEACH — “When God closes one door, he opens another,” said Father Richard Ahlemeyer during the homily at a recent Friday Mass for the retired sisters of the Stella Maris Convent.
About a dozen nuns from the Sisters of Joseph nodded enthusiastically and knowingly. They also learned that adage in their ministries as teachers, school administrators, and nurses in the Diocese of Brooklyn or on the mission field in Puerto Rico.
Although retired and slowed by age, they nurture relationships among themselves and the staff and continue their mission to be fervent in prayer.
“We have 18 sisters here,” said Sister Miriam Daniel Pender, the convent’s community life coordinator. “Some have dementia or Alzheimer’s, but we have them involved in everything they can handle.”
Models of Care
Stella Maris Convent is an assisted-living facility like the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Whitestone, Queens. Both have been repurposed from their earlier operations.
The home for sisters in Rockaway Beach once housed the sisters who taught at Stella Maris High School next door. The school is now rented out to the New York Department of Education. The Sisters of Mercy convent was a home for the Redemptorists Society of missionary priests.
Sister Maryann Seton Lopiccolo of the Office of the Episcopal Delegate for Religious said the diocese is home to sisters from 72 religious congregations. The two assisted living homes keep retired sisters close to the communities where they spent their careers. They’re staffed with nurses, personal aides, laundry facilities, and kitchen professionals.
“Both are wonderful models of how the communities have taken care of the sisters,” she said. “All the congregations have spent a lot of time, energy, and money on caring for their senior members.”
No local homes offer the next level of comprehensive skilled nursing care specifically for religious sisters. But those opportunities exist at “mother houses” outside Brooklyn and Queens.
“The healthy thing to do,” Sister Maryann said, “is to keep senior people as active for as long as you can and actively engaged with other people for as long as you can. It’s better mentally, psychologically, and spiritually for them.”
Last September, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate issued a special report reminding religious orders and dioceses about best practices in caring for elderly and infirm sisters.
The report pointed to research that describes how elderly sisters can suffer loneliness and accelerated aging if they become entirely shut off from the ministries and vocations they had before retirement.
“As the sense of ministry and vocation is particularly strong among religious sisters, the loss of ability to participate in their ministry or vocation can have strong negative effects on their quality of life,” the report stated. “After a lifetime of meaningful work and community living, there is a need for continued meaningful use of time.
“Patients consistently said that access to the sacraments and Mass, a feeling of vocation, and the omnipresence of God were positive factors in their quality of life.”
The report also noted that prayer is important for the sisters, especially when they are unable to help out physically.
My Own Rod & Reel
Sister Miriam said most of the sisters at Stella Maris have mobility issues. But the sense of community keeps them engaged, especially spiritually.
During a tour of the convent, Sister Miriam stopped at the room of Sister Yolanda Kinsella, who was bedridden and had difficulty speaking. Sister Miriam introduced her as an educator who served several years in Puerto Rico.
The brief conversation included Sister Yolanda’s hobbies. She whispered that she loves to fish, adding, “I have my own rod and reel!” Thinking about a fishing trip is good mental therapy for her, Sister Miriam said.
The sisters enjoy strolling on the boardwalk with their aides. And they are spiritually committed to each other. At the recent Mass, Sister Febronia Lowenstein served as Eucharistic minister.
Making the Adjustment
Sister Breige Lavery, community life coordinator at the convent in Whitestone, said the retired nuns keep volunteering for as long as they are able.
“It’s just amazing how many of them are in touch with many of their former students,” she said. “Their ministries were very dear to them. We just get a conversation going at the table about a school or a ministry, and they really light up when you talk to them.”
Some retired sisters still drive and can volunteer or work part-time in their retirements. Sister Betty Calfapietra commutes each week from the convent in Whitestone to volunteer in the library at Cristo Rey Brooklyn High School in East Flatbush — the neighborhood of her youth. Sister Betty entered the Sisters of Mercy community in 1964. She taught at the Cristo Rey building when it was Catherine McAuley High School.
She also became a professor at St. Joseph College in Brooklyn, teaching education.
She is a new resident at the convent in Whitestone, having started her retirement living in an apartment with another sister. But the sisters had to find a new home when her landlords decided to sell after the pandemic. Sister Betty said she knew an assisted-living arrangement was in her future, so she decided to get the transition out of the way and moved to the convent in Whitestone a few months ago.
She said it has been an adjustment, going from having one roommate to living in a home with 29 other retirees.
Still, her connection to Cristo Rey keeps her engaged, she said.
“I loved those years working with college students who wanted to be teachers,” she said. “And I missed being with the teachers and being in a place where children learn. It’s where I feel most at home.”
Sister Betty recalled how the president of the Sisters of Mercy congregation suggested she join the board of directors. The congregation had just endorsed the school, and she knew about the sister’s first-hand connections to the school building and the neighborhood.
“So, I said yes,” Sister Betty said. “But I knew I wasn’t satisfied with just that involvement. I knew I wanted to come to the building at least once a week and be engaged in something that could be helpful.”
Sister Betty does more than volunteer in the library. Like a school ambassador, she greeted students’ families, including younger siblings, during a recent afternoon of parent-teacher conferences.
Asked what life might be like without volunteering at Cristo Rey, Sister Betty paused, then answered, “Hmm, I wonder. It would be another adjustment.”
She said the focus would shift to maintaining a prayer ministry while contending with whatever health issues surface with aging. “But,” she added, “I’ve seen sisters make very graceful adjustments to that.”
For now, Sister Betty enjoys the “intergenerational” contacts in her life. The sisters at the convent are friends she has known and worked with for decades. The high school blesses her with new acquaintances among the faculty, staff, and students.
“Here,” she said, “I am with teenagers and young adults. It just brings a whole different energy — a positive energy.”