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Latino community bids farewell to beloved Sister Margarita Smyth with emotional wake

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Mourners filled the sanctuary at St. John the Evangelist Church in Riverhead Wednesday night to bid farewell to Sister Margaret Smyth.

Sister Margaret Smyth, or Madre Margarita, as the Latino community affectionately called her, lived her life in service to the community. 

Hundreds attended a wake and prayer service at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Riverhead on Wednesday to honor and remember the woman whose indomitable spirit, tenacity and devotion touched the lives of many throughout the region, igniting a flame that It will continue to burn for generations to come.

Around 800 people, the vast majority Latino families, filled the pews and aisles of the church to mourn and say goodbye for the last time to the nun who transformed so many lives and who died this weekend while sleeping in her Riverhead home at 83 years old (read the obituary).  A table with various images, posters and photo albums showing Sister. Smiling and cheerful Margarita welcomed the attendees.

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Oscar Lopez, coordinator of the charismatic renewal group at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, says goodbye to Sister Margarita Smyth.

“I'm so happy that so many people came today,” said Consuelo Ludlam, a North Fork Hispanic Apostolate volunteer for 17 years. “They are acknowledging everything that she gave them. She didn't give them money, she gave them love, faith and religion. Even when she scolded them, she would then think about it and then pray for them and she would be there for them."

“She was an angel and always will be,” Ludlam said. “It comforts me to know that she died so peacefully. She had a lot of heart problems and had not been well for some time. God called her home."

Throughout the service, several Latino parishioners and leaders at St. John's and St. Agnes in Greenport—two of the three Catholic churches in the North Fork where Sister Margaret helped create a mass in Spanish—they spoke movingly of their experiences with her, at times breaking down in tears, painting a picture of a fierce advocate who tirelessly fought for justice, community, and inclusion, always with a joke in mind.

“She was like a mother to many immigrants, especially the newcomers,” said parishioner Geremias Boch. “She welcomed us and treated us like her own family. She gave us so much love. Now that she is gone, our hearts are broken, but she has left many beautiful things in our lives. Teachings, such as how to live in this country, how to adapt. She has taught us a lot."

“She planted a seed in the hearts of many Latinos and people from all over the world. And thanks to her we are now a great community, because it wasn't like that before. She gave everything she had to give, as a person and as a nun and as the mother of an entire community,” Boch said. “I am very sad, my heart is broken, but I am also happy because I know that we have a defender in Heaven, she will always intercede for us from there.”

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“She was like a mother to many immigrants, especially the newcomers,” said Geremias Boch.

Edwin Moran, a Greenport resident, met Sister Margaret in 1998. He remembers when he first heard about her. He was still in his late teens and was impressed with this new nun, who had been knocking on doors and going to laundromats, farms, and delis in the North Fork, looking for the immigrants she knew lived there and up to that point, were in the shadows. 

He remembered how once she began gathering people together, helping them establish a mass in Spanish, which eventually became three services in Greenport, Cutchogue and Riverhead.

“There were only a few of us, but even with that few, a Spanish mass was established and we were able to form a choir,” Moran recalled, adding jokingly, “Sister Margaret told us, 'Oh my God! They don't sing so badly, but they are rather ugly, we better look for some handsome ones so that more people come to church'.”

Moran explained how, little by little, the churches filled up, forming various groups—prayer, youth, Eucharist, religious formation, and more—and what started as something small, became a large and fully developed ministry.

“Throughout this entire process, the sparkle in Sister Margarita's eyes never went out and her heart was full of joy," said Moran. “If she saw us today, she would be very happy,” Moran cried, as she addressed the crowd.

Like the other speakers who spoke before Mora, he explained how Sister Margarita helped him personally. Moran said she was there for him through it all, helping him manage car insurance, hospital bills and a disability after an accident he suffered in 1999.

She has accompanied hundreds to immigration court or to legal appointments. She fought for countless causes to advance people's rights, from fair wages for workers to language access, fair housing, and anti-discrimination bills.

She has provided vital services, such as food and clothing, identification cards, and more, for more than 20 years. She was the link between the community and the municipalities, consulates, funeral homes, courts, hospitals and many other people and organizations. She helped set up educational workshops, from English as a second language, to public speaking, community organizing, and even cooking. 

She helped organize hundreds of multicultural events, from Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners to live Stations of the Cross in Spanish and festivals throughout the North Fork. She was present at hundreds of weddings, births, first communions and confirmations. She was at the forefront of various campaigns for decades, always advocating for the Latino community in one way or another. From helping pass the driver's license access law for all or the fund for excluded workers during the pandemic, to speaking up for people who work tirelessly, but still can't make ends meet, something she did as recently as June, when she spoke before the Suffolk County Legislature.

“Certainly, things were not always easy. Our community faces difficult problems, but Sister Margarita always tried to find a solution, to help in some way,” Moran said.

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“I think she loved us so much because she saw herself in us,” Edwin Moran said.

“I think she loved us so much because she saw herself in us,” Moran said. “She told us many times that she lived in a one-bedroom apartment growing up, and sometimes even had to share her bed with her sister. That made me think and I realized that this is why she fought so hard for us and our rights because despite our different cultures or where we come from, our families are the same, we are all human.”

Once the speakers finished, the entire church spontaneously began to sing, with tears in their eyes, a song by Brazilian singer-songwriter Roberto Carlos called “Un Millón de Amigos,” whose lyrics perfectly encapsulate Sr. Daisy flower. 

The Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Center, the Rev. Miguel Romero, offered the closing prayer.

“She has not died, she is resting. The Lord has called her to eternal life,” the bishop ministered in Spanish.

At the end of the service, the mourners filed one by one in front of the coffin, surrounded by flowers and crowns where the body of Sister Margarita lay as well as a cross and a 1959 diploma of her priestly ordination as a nun of Santo Domingo, which will be buried with her.

Many of the people stopped to say a final goodbye, mourn her departure, and pay their respects one last time.

“Thank you Mother Margarita, thank you. You left a void in all of us that will be impossible to fill. Rest in the arms of the Lord, Sister Margarita, we will always, always remember you,” sobbed Mora, echoing the sentiment that hundreds, if not thousands, of people throughout our region reflect today. 

Margarita will be transported to Queen of the Rosary Motherhouse Cemetery in Amityville, for her final burial and rest. 

A Spanish language media outlet serving Suffolk County, New York.