Catholic Voices: Sr. Mary Agnes O’Neil

ALBANY—Sister Mary Agnes O’Neil, Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, is known for her longevity and spirit, but in the Capitol Region she could be known as the sister who saved St. Mary’s Hospital in Troy. Sister Mary Agnes spent three different stints at St. Mary’s, the first time in 1963, when she was sent there to close the hospital. But she would not let the hospital close, and along with Morris Massry, a businessman from Troy, and many other physicians, set up a foundation to raise funds throughout the years, joined the Chamber of Commerce and continued to raise awareness about the vital role the hospital played in the community. It worked, as the hospital prospered. In 1981, the mayor of Troy proclaimed Aug. 31 “Sister Mary Agnes Day.” And just last year, a plaque was installed at St. Mary’s to recognize all of Sister Mary’s work. Sister Mary Agnes talked with The Evangelist about her life and times as a Daughter of Charity.

TE: What was your upbringing like?

SM: I was born in Bridgeport, Conn., in the St. Augustine Cathedral parish. And I had a wonderful family life. My mother was from Ireland, Sneem, County Kerry. That’s from the ring of Kerry in Ireland. And my father was from Bridgeport, but his parents were from Tipperary, Ireland. We lived at 1515 North Ave. and that’s where we grew up and we had a wonderful family. I had a brother two years older, John. He became the assistant fire chief in Bridgeport, and then I came along, and then my sister, Helen, came along, and she became a nurse, too, and then my young brother came along, Tom, and he went to Fairfield University and the Jesuit programs and he went into the insurance business for the state and the diocese. We had a wonderful childhood. It was a great family treat, thank God. My mother had great devotion to the Blessed Mother, as the Irish do, and my father was very religious, not overly religious, but genuine, religious loving people.

TE: Do you remember your earliest religious experience in a church?

SM: We would go down to St. Rayfield’s. And on Sunday it was a family occasion for Mass. We would go to early Mass. My father would drive our Essex car and the four kids and my mother would all hop in. We didn’t have seatbelts in those days. Sunday was a day of prayer and quiet for us. And then we would have dinner together as a family and then we would go back up to church whether they had vespers and benediction. And then when we came home we would listen to Father (Charles) Coughlin on the radio. We were very religious. And during Lent, my mother would come up on Friday and we would all meet at the church and we would have Stations of the Cross. And then at home during May, Blessed Mother’s feast days, we had a shrine to the Blessed Mother in our bedroom. And when we came home from school we would go out in the woods and pick up the fresh violets every day and put a new bouquet in front of Our Lady. And then we had the rosary quite often at home during the night. I used to remember my father had to go into bed early. I can remember him kneeling in the kitchen, saying his rosary. It was a great example to us.

TE: Have you always been drawn toward the vocation?

SM: I was led to goodness. And mother did a lot for the poor. We were poor ourselves, and we knew that. We weren’t well-off. My father was a bus driver and my mother stayed at home, until the second World War. She would go down to the local factory and help snipping nylon fabrics so they could make parachutes out of it. She would do that part-time there. I felt the goodness more than anything and then I began to feel it as I got toward my senior year in high school. I would love to be a sister, but I never told anybody, not even my mother. I said I want to pray over this and just think about it. Then when the war broke out, my oldest brother, John, enlisted in the Navy. And I said, “I want to go in the Navy with him.” And when I was a senior student, I enlisted in the United States Navy Nurse Corp and I said to myself, “I will do four years in the Navy nurses and then I am going to go into vocation.” I knew that I felt that strongly.

So I enlisted and lo and behold in my junior year of nursing … didn’t they pick out and send me, they could have sent me to anywhere in the United States, to St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, Conn. So I went there and I didn’t care for the Daughters of Charity. I was a little afraid of them with their big white hats and I was just never too comfortable. But I grew to love them. When I went into nursing, they were such a living example on the units, on the wards. … I just yearned to be a sister. I wasn’t sure of what community. But after I finished my three years at St. Vincent’s, by the third year I knew this was the community that I was going to enter. I grew to love the work they did and how conscious they were of the needs of others.
Sister Mary Agnes spent one year in seminary and then remained at the cloister for five years then spent time in Carney Hospital in Boston, St. Vincent’s in Jacksonville, Fla., and Good Samaritan in Pottsville, Pa., where she says saw much poverty and suffering.

TE: Talk to us about your time at St. Mary’s in Troy.

SM: Three times I served over at St. Mary’s in Troy. I worked there from 1963-69 and then ’76-81 and when Leonard Hospital merged into St. Mary’s. When I was sent to St. Mary’s in 1963. I was actually sent there to close the hospital. The board had decided to close it because they just didn’t have the money. And the sister there was supposed to orient me for three months. She got ill and I was asked to take over the administration on Monday after being there just two weeks, and I realized that this hospital is poor, but they need some help. So I said I am not going to let this hospital close because we had so many poor people, poor staff that needed jobs. And I said we are going to work hard on this. … We had a lot of people and they helped us financially as best they could. …  This man called the St. Peter’s Foundation and he gave a large sum of money to help St. Mary’s in Troy, this was last year, and he named me, he had a plaque put up in the lobby over there which they did. And I was shocked. Melissa Phillips (annual giving specialist at St Peter’s Health Partners) called me from St. Peter’s and she said “Sister, you are being honored” … I haven’t seen or heard from that man since 1981. I think you got the wrong sister. I am 92 years old. And she said “No, you are the one.” And I was stunned, absolutely stunned.

TE: You have seen a lot of poverty and a lot of people going through hard times. What keeps you positive?

SM: I leaned on my faith. I love the rosary; sometimes I say two or three rosaries a day. Now I say a rosary for my family all living and dead, from the initial ones from Ireland years back. And then I say one for any that have illness or people that have asked me. Meditation. I try to make it faithfully. We have a prayer book in the afternoon, always try to say vespers. And we have a prayer community now in St. Louise. We are a community of prayer. That is our main theme as Daughters of Charity. We also work closely with the Ladies of Charity who were founded 10 years before the daughters were. They do marvelous work. Prayer is the main thing really in difficult times. And other traits you have to have to be kind, and we have to work on all these things. We are human beings like the rest of mankind. Thanks be to God, I came from a positive family, my father and mother, I never heard any griping or hollering or swearing, a man and a woman of prayer, what a nice united twosome. And they were so good. And we were always positive. My mother would get us a good breakfast and get us off to school she’d say, “Now stand up straight, throw your shoulders back, put your chest out, hold your head high, you have nothing to be ashamed of.” And out we would go.

TE: Is there anything to the lifestyle that leads to sisters’ longevity?

SM: There is a lot of peace and prayer and you learn to love each other as sisters. Now you don’t always get along, you are not as close to one as another. I think a lot of it is family too. I think I have my mother’s genes. She died at 97. My father died at 65, right after he retired. It was a cancer thing. And that ran in his family and my three siblings all died of cancer. Cancer of the lung, cigarettes. And I was the only one in my nursing class of 44 that did not smoke during the Second World War. Can you imagine that? You would get cigarettes as gifts, they were pilling cigarettes to everybody. It was kind of a relaxation thing, but, oh, I couldn’t stand it. Some of it might be related to genes and some of it is the life, the peacefulness of the life. You try to stress kindness to others. And reflection time for yourself. I love to walk. First of all, I do a lot of exercise, I think that is so important, that is another thing to stress to people. I do two hours a week with our physical therapist with our whole group of sisters. I am the oldest in the group. And then I take an hour of Tai chi every week. And I love to get out walking outdoors, getting the fresh air. I deliver the papers in the morning. I am Eucharistic minister and I am lector once a week. I keep in a lot of activities, and I forget I am 92.

TE: Tell us about the recent talent show at St. Louise House? 

SM: Last week I did a solo number in the talent show here, we had a talent show, first ever for staff and sisters. So have about 60 sisters on this campus and the staff and they said “God you are not going to,” and I said  “I am,” and I did “Murphy’s Chowder.” Now, that is an old, old song. (Sister Mary sings) Mrs. Murphy gave a party, I knew the words I could sing it since I was a little kid, my mother taught us. Mrs. Murphy ditched the chowder, she near fainted on the spot, she found a pair of overalls in the bottom of the pot and I pulled up the overalls and I had little, 2-year-olds overalls and they were screaming, laughing. And then Tim Nolan got ripping mad, he jumped upon the piano and loudly he did shout, “Who threw the overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s chowder?” It was a riot. We had a great, great time.

TE: What is your life philosophy? 

SM: Don’t take life so seriously. God has a plan for each one of us regardless of religion, he has a plan, we are not going to unravel that plan. So let’s live life to the fullest, enjoy life and don’t press ourselves to the Nth degree. If you can get it done today, get it done, Blessed be God, but get a good night’s sleep and then you are up and going. And I don’t rest in the afternoon because I sleep good at night … But to get into the habit of sleeping for an hour in the afternoon, I never let myself do that. I never saw that at home either. And my mother lived till 97. ?… I think you have to pray. You know God is with you. God is good. My motto is “God is good, He said He would.” And he does. And he takes care of us to the Nth degree. And try to be at peace with yourself. You can’t bring peace and joy to others unless you keep some joy within. Try to let it grow inside of you through your prayer life, meditation and reflection on life and reflection on God in life and then you can start giving it out.

By Mary Matvey | The Evangelist