Sister Mary Isabel Sullivan, R.S.M., has a unique talent. For more than 30 years, she handmade replacement miters for the bishops of the Diocese of Brooklyn.
While the Cypress Hills native thoroughly enjoyed crafting these ceremonial headgears, she gave up the practice roughly seven years ago.
However, with the recent ordination of Bishops Raymond Chappetto and Paul Sanchez as auxiliary bishops, who better than to make their new miters than Sister Mary Isabel?
At 92 years old, she was taken aback when Father James Cunningham, administrator of Holy Name parish, Park Slope, approached her on a trip to Ireland about the possibility of making miters for his two friends – Bishops Chappetto and Sanchez.
Initially, Sister Mary Isabel, who took her Final Vows in 1942, said she couldn’t do it. Not only did she throw out all her materials from years ago, but she also said she could no longer thread a needle, which would have made the process very difficult.
“I felt bad when I said I couldn’t do it,” she said. “At 92, what am I going to do?”
But after thinking about it, she agreed to give it a try. She went to La Lame, a specialty liturgical fabric store in Manhattan, to gather her supplies. She currently has everything she needs to begin working on the miters.
Though she was originally worried about not having any of her supplies that she threw away, Sister Mary Isabel was told by Father Cunningham to take her time with the process.
“Father Cunningham was very encouraging,” she said. “And now I’m back into the work again. I’m fortunate that I’m well enough.”
The business of making miters started in 1980, when then Msgr. Anthony Bevilacqua was ordained an auxiliary bishop. Sister Mary Isabel worked for Msgr. Bevilacqua in the migration office at the diocesan chancery – a role she held for 16 years after finishing her career in education.
She remembers that one day, Msgr. Bevilacqua was saying how he wished someone could make the miters for bishops because they were so expensive. Even the cheapest miters cost upwards of $300.
Sister Mary Isabel thought to herself, “Why can’t I make these?” She had learned to use a sewing machine at age 12 after seeing one of her brothers using it.
“If he can use a sewing machine and he’s a man, then I can do it,” she said. “So I learned how to use a sewing machine.”
She used these skills to make coifs and habits for her fellow nuns. She felt confident with her sewing skills, so she obtained an old miter, pulled it apart piece-by-piece, studied the pieces and realized that she would be able to do it.
Using fabric she found in the motherhouse on Willoughby Ave., Sister Mary Isabel worked tirelessly on her first miter, though no one even knew she was making it. When complete, she left it on a kitchen chair for Msgr. Bevilacqua, who was very happy with it.
“It’ll cost you $2.29,” she told the soon-to-be auxiliary bishop.
From there, business took off. Bishop (later Cardinal) Joseph O’Connor, who at the time was the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, wanted a miter, and he was in the process of ordaining three new men, who also wanted miters.
Soon enough, Sister Mary Isabel’s name was spreading rapidly around the diocese. Her miters were termed “The Isabel’s,” which allowed her to gain a shining reputation. She’s now made more than 100 miters and has kept track by saving all the bills.
Though she originally didn’t charge much for the miters, the bishops only wanted one if they could pay her. So Sister Mary Isabel started charging $100 per miter – a significant discount from what miters cost on the open market. With some money coming in, she was able to purchase higher quality fabric to make successive miters.
She didn’t exactly have copious amounts of free time or space to work on these miters, but she made due with what she had. She worked each day at The Chancery until 5 p.m., came back to the convent for dinner and communal prayer and then worked on the miters in her room at night. She would lay out the pieces on her bed and begin constructing the pattern that she would use.
Over the years, she’s made miters for Cardinal O’Connor, Bishop Dennis Sullivan, Bishop Thomas V. Daily and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio. In fact, she even handmade the gold miter that adorned Cardinal O’Connor in his casket.
“I’ve made a lot of friends because of this,” she said.
She’s made special holiday miters, including a Christmas miter with working lights, and even made one that was sent to Africa for a fellow sister’s cousin who was ordained a bishop.
Sister Mary Isabel said that the size of the miters was always a challenge. Not only could the fabrics either stretch or shrink, but she also needed to make sure she had the exact measurements of a bishop’s head.
“I measure them myself,” she said. “I don’t take anybody else’s measurements.”
Bishops Chappetto and Sanchez visited her current residence in Whitestone for the fittings several weeks ago, and the two bishops-elect celebrated Mass with the sisters that evening.
Though she never thought her work was all that special, Sister Mary Isabel was present at the Episcopal Ordination ceremony on July 11 at Our Lady of Angels, Bay Ridge, where she began to understand the significance of what she had done for so many years.
“I became very moved in it, the fact that I’m having a part in this,” she said. “I never realized it as much until that day. I was really moved sitting there watching all of this.”
After seeing the beautiful celebration, Sister Mary Isabel was happy she changed her mind after originally saying no. She has never sought any credit for her talent and instead simply enjoyed piecing together the miters.
While she may not produce the miters at the rate she once did, two new auxiliary bishops means two new miters, so she will graciously continue the tradition of providing Brooklyn’s bishops with one of the ceremonial symbols of their office.