WARWICK — One of the most popular and well-known people in the Warwick area is not a politician, or local celebrity.
Rather, she’s a beloved Religious Sister of Mercy who, three months away from her 91st birthday, is known for her playful wit and wisdom, and for never forgetting the face or name of the countless young people she has inspired in her tireless work over decades in Catholic education.
“You can’t go anywhere without meeting someone who has had Sister as a teacher, principal or friend. No one ever forgets her!” said June Spencer, who nominated Sister Mary Angelus Gabrielle, R.S.M., for a Lumen Gentium award. Sister will receive the Catholic Education Lifetime Achievement Award on May 17.
Spencer said she has had the “blessing” of knowing Sister Mary Angelus for 43 years, having been hired by her for her first teaching job at St. Peter School.
She said that like countless others, her life has been lovingly enriched by Sister Mary Angelus.
“They will all tell you that she left something special in their heart and that it has affected their way of living,” Spencer said.
Sister Mary Angelus said she frequently receives invitations to attend baptisms, first Communions, showers and weddings.
“I’ve been in the parish for 50 years, and I’m not going anywhere until the Lord calls me, then I’ll be ready hopefully,” she smiles.
Sister was born in Westerly and attended Immaculate Conception School there from first through ninth grade. She went on to graduate from Westerly High School in 1944.
She discerned a religious vocation, entering the Sisters of Mercy’s Mount St. Rita Convent, Cumberland, in September 1944.
Her first mission was St. Mary’s North Attleboro, Massachusetts, where she taught first grade for three years, before being assigned to teach at Immaculate Conception in the north end of Providence. This was followed by a 13-year assignment at St. Matthew School, Cranston.
After teaching for one year at St. Augustine School, Newport, she was assigned to St. Peter School in Warwick.
After teaching first grade for five years, she received a call from her provincial that would change her life.
“I received the news that I was going to leave my comfort zone in the first grade and go into the office as principal. I stayed there for 29 years,” she said.
Among her priorities in hiring the best teachers was ensuring that they knew the Gospel.
“I wanted them to be familiar with the Lord and our Blessed Mother. I always made sure that they had a devotion to our Blessed Mother by saying the rosary,” she said.
“I was very particular about who Msgr. Cox and I would hire. We asked lots of questions. From those answers we knew what types of teachers they would be.”
She said that one of her faculties was unity, and she wanted all staff to be able to work together.
“I told them I can’t do anything without their cooperation, and I must say I was blessed.”
She spent a total of 34 years at St. Peter, five as a first grade teacher and 29 as principal, retiring in 2000.
“I was very sad about it; I was 74 years old,” she said.
“After I retired, I thought about people in the parish that I had not seen at church. I said those people must not be able to come. I’m going to call them. So I looked up their phone numbers and I picked up 12 people that I ministered to by visiting them and bringing the Eucharist to them. I’m still doing it. They were all so delighted to have me and I was more than happy to go.”
Her sister, who herself is 95 years old, jokes about Sister Mary Angelus’ commitment to the elderly in this ministry.
“My sister keeps saying ‘You’re forgetting you’re one of them,’” she laughs.
Over the next several weeks, Rhode Island Catholic will feature profiles of the 17 winners in the 10 categories of the diocese’s 2017 Lumen Gentium Awards, which formally recognize those who ‘toil in the vineyard’ in service to the Lord, and minister to those in greatest need in their parish or community. The honorees will be awarded during a dinner at Twin River Event Center in Lincoln on Wednesday, May 17. Guests wishing to purchase tickets to the dinner — whose proceeds will support diocesan senior priests, many of whom continue to serve in our diocese well into their older years — are asked to register online at www.dioceseofprovidence.org/lumen-gentium-awards. For any questions about the event, please call 401-277-2121.