BRENTWOOD — Technically, Sister Eileen McCann is retired, but that hasn’t stopped her from working nearly full time as a lawyer helping newcomers to the U.S. navigate the complexities of immigration court.
She entered the congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood in 1956, and taught in Catholic schools in the Diocese of Brooklyn. But by the 1980s, many of her students were from migrant families mired in immigration court proceedings.
Sister Eileen became their champion, first as an accredited advocate and later as a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society.
Her life’s work will be honored at the 37th Annual New York Awards Dinner of the group Support our Aging Religious (SOAR!) Sept. 13, at the New York Athletic Club in Manhattan.
Although retired since 2017, Sister Eileen volunteers four days a week at the Long Island Immigration Clinic, a “pro-se” organization founded by the Sisters of Saint Joseph in 2021.
“I do whatever needs to be done,” she said. “I’m thrilled to do it. I’m just so glad they asked me because I love the work. And I love the people.”
Sister Eileen recalls that she first thought about becoming a nun in the sixth grade while reading “The Story of A Soul,” the autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
She imagined a life of sanctity, joy, and spiritual simplicity that exemplified the brief life of St. Thérèse — who was called “The Little Flower of Jesus.”
The saint also had an early calling and was a Carmelite in France during the late 1800s who wrote about the faith before her death of tuberculosis at age 24.
But Sister Eileen, who grew up in Astoria and Long Island City, questioned her own early calling during her time at Bishop McDonnell Memorial High School for girls in Brooklyn.
“The decision was made for me,” Sister Eileen said with a laugh. “God kept on pushing me. And we had some pretty active conversations.
“I remember in high school pointing out other people who were a lot better candidates.”
Finally, as graduation approached, Sister Eileen made her decision.
“I said, ‘Enough arguing — try it out!’ ” she recalled. “And my mother said, ‘You’ll be back soon. So go with our blessings.’ ”
Sister Eileen graduated and worked briefly for the New York Telephone Company.
“And then I entered the congregation in 1956,” she said. “And, oh, it was delightful. I would never like to be in another place. It’s been a wonderful journey.”
She taught at Catholic schools in struggling Brooklyn neighborhoods, including Transfiguration School in Williamsburg.
“I had such wonderful experiences in the inner city, teaching minority children, and learning the community,” Sister Eileen said. “I just loved everything I did.”
Sister Eileen later earned a master’s degree in theology from Providence College. She also spent 11 years as a high school religion teacher and elementary school principal in Puerto Rico at schools run by the Sisters of St. Joseph.
Next, Sister Eileen returned to Transfiguration. She then realized families at the school needed help sorting through immigration issues.
As an accredited representative, she accompanied migrants to their immigration court hearings to advocate for them.
But by the late 1980s, Sister Eileen realized she could do more, so she entered the City University of New York School of Law.
While studying at CUNY, she lived and served at Providence House — a home in Brooklyn for people facing various issues such as homelessness or domestic violence.
After Sister Eileen earned her law degree she embarked on a 20-year ministry working with the Legal Aid Society. She helped migrants in family law, domestic violence cases, and immigration court proceedings.
Her work at the Long Island Immigration Clinic involves reviewing cases, giving oversight to volunteers, and working directly with people seeking asylum in the United States.
“We began to realize that there are so many immigrants living on Long Island — right in our backyard,” Sister Eileen said. “Some of our younger sisters, thank God, took up the torch to try to figure out with other groups what to do.”
SOAR!, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, began in 1986 to improve the comfort, safety, and dignity of religious retirees.
On Sept. 13, the organization will give its Father Victor Yanitelli, SJ Award to Sister Eileen.
It includes a cash gift to the honoree’s order to help fund accessibility and safety features, or medical devices, in the homes of aging religious. Examples are automatic doors and hospital beds.
The award honors length of service in religious life, the financial need of the candidate’s congregation, and how that person reflects the life of Father Yanitelli. He was a Jesuit priest who was president of St. Peter University in Jersey City, New Jersey from 1965-1978, and was a longtime supporter of SOAR!
Last year’s recipient was Sister Maryann Lopiccolo, episcopal delegate for religious in the Diocese of Brooklyn.
Sister Maryann said Sister Eileen is an acquaintance, and she has not worked with her. Still, she noted, Sister Eileen is widely known and respected in the diocese and beyond.
“I think that’s a wonderful honor for her,” Sister Maryann said. “I’ve been going to this dinner for so many years, and just to see these sisters and brothers still committed to working — it’s very edifying.
“But that’s who we are. Religious people don’t just retire and take up knitting. You try to keep doing what you’ve been doing, on your schedule, and to the best of your ability.”
Sister Eileen said the people she serves inspire her to keep working. She praised the migrants’ resilience, joy, and faith, despite the dangers they endured to reach the U.S.
For example, Sister Eileen described a woman from Ecuador who phoned to apologize that she couldn’t make her appointment at the immigration clinic because she was about to deliver a baby by cesarean section.
“And she’s apologizing to us!” exclaimed Sister Eileen. “If I was having a cesarean section there’s no way I would think to call the clinic and say. ‘Please excuse me, I won’t be there!’
“My life has been so easy, but they walk the walk. I just want to kneel before them sometimes when I hear their stories.”