Centenarian teacher known for love of children, compassion for all - Catholic Courier

Centenarian teacher known for love of children, compassion for all

BRIGHTON — Great storytelling is among the many noted attributes of Sister Mary Eileen FitzGibbons. But on Nov. 18, the tables were turned: She took on the role of listener while well-wishers volunteered stories about her with great affection.

With three balloons dangling overhead, the guest of honor beamed as fellow Sisters of Mercy shared anecdotes about her sharp wit, love for children, compassion for all, great faith, excellence as a teacher and consistently happy nature.

Sister Kathleen Wayne even noted Sister FitzGibbons’ reputation for making great fudge, saying, “Thank you for feeding our souls and our stomachs.” And Sister Miriam Nugent — who, like Sister Wayne, is a native Elmiran who has known Sister FitzGibbons since childhood — noted that “I fell in love with the Sisters of Mercy through Sister Eileen.”

These were among the many warm sentiments that flowed through a festive mid-afternoon gathering at the Sisters of Mercy Motherhouse held right on Sister FitzGibbons’ 100th birthday.

“Oh, this is lovely, this is lovely,” Sister FitzGibbons exclaimed as she got a close-up look at one of her two birthday cakes.

The new centenarian sported a frequent smile throughout the party and even took part in a sing-along, which included a nod to her Irish heritage with “Sweet Rosie O’Grady” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” When asked if she could blow out five candles, she replied, “Sure, I can!” and proceeded to do so.

Sister FitzGibbons was born Dolores FitzGibbons one century ago in Hornell, where she attended St. Ann Parish. She entered the Sisters of Mercy in 1931, some 78 years ago, becoming one of 15 postulants to begin her new life in the congregation’s new motherhouse.

She taught at the elementary-school level for 47 years, including 34 in Elmira. Her first teaching assignments were at St. Andrew (1932-33) and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (1934-37) schools, both in Rochester. From there, she moved to St. Patrick School in Elmira, where she would spend the next 21 years.

From 1958-60 she taught at St. Joseph School in Penfield. Then it was back to Elmira, where she taught at St. Cecilia School from 1960-66. After teaching at St. Louis School in Pittsford from 1966-71, she returned yet again to Chemung County, teaching at Elmira’s St. Mary School (1971-75) and Our Lady of Lourdes School (1975-78). She was the convent cook at Our Lady of Lourdes for one year before moving to the motherhouse in 1979, where she has served in the spiritual apostolate ever since.

Among the guests at Sister FitzGibbons’ 100th-birthday celebration were two nieces, Sisters Veronica Casey and Barbara Weyand, who are Sisters of Mercy and reside at the motherhouse as well. Sister Casey recalled family gatherings at which Sister FitzGibbons “would play the magician,” pulling toys and other gifts from her long habit.

“She was real good with little kids,” Sister Casey told the Catholic Courier.

During Sister FitzGibbons’ party birthday letters were noted from such dignitaries as Bishop Matthew H. Clark; Anne Willkens Leach, diocesan schools superintendent (she also attended); Anne-Marie Brogan, pastoral administrator of St. Mary Parish in Rochester; and Rochester Mayor Robert Duffy, who noted that “western New York is a better place” because of Sister FitzGibbons’ long and wonderful life.

Extra-special recognition came from Sister FitzGibbons’ home town, as well as the city where she did most of her teaching: Hornell Mayor Shawn Hogan and Elmira Mayor John S. Tonello each sent proclamations declaring Nov. 18 as Sister Mary Eileen FitzGibbons Day in their respective cities.

That’s pretty heady stuff for somebody who’s best known for putting others before herself, according to Sister FitzGibbons’ niece.

“She never sought the limelight,” Sister Casey remarked.

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