On a warm and sunny morning a few Sundays ago, Sister Thomas found herself resting on a chair while overseeing the weekly rummage sale at the garage next to the red brick St. Athanasius Catholic Church in Hunts Point. The cramped structure serves as a storage facility for donated items that her group sells every Sunday. At 78, Sister Thomas is still as involved as she was 49 years ago, when she first arrived at the South Bronx neighborhood.
Only now, she’s no longer welcomed by church’s new pastor.
On July 1, 2010, the Rev. Jose Rivas of the neighboring St. John Chrysostom took over following the death of Rev. Bill Smith. Immediately after taking office, the Colombian-born priest dismissed long-time staff and informed Sister Thomas that her services were no longer needed.
At the same time, Rivas emptied the church rectory of the food and clothes that Sister Thomas collected for the weekly flea market. The nun has been raising money for needy families from Hunts Pont and Longwood. Rivas’s decision sparked a protest among long-time parishioners, who signed a petition to oust him.
Many residents said they were dismayed by the way the Sister Thomas was treated. Hunts Point native and former church worker Gladys Weinberg said it was the nun who stuck it out with the community during the difficult years, when much of South Bronx was burned down.
Bronx Ink requested an interview with Rivas, but he declined saying, “No comment, no comment, no comment.” The New York Archdiocese had no comment on the issue.
Noella Asencio, another parishioner, said she welcomes Rivas ‘ style of leadership. She said that within the last year, she has already seen a number of physical improvements in the church, including the repair of the altar.
“It’s nothing personal,” Asencio said, while pointing out that Rivas did not know Sister Thomas when he moved to the new parish.
Still, Weinberg insisted that because of her long service to Hunts Point, the nun deserves respect from Rivas. She said the priest should have been more diplomatic in dealing with the aging nun.
Weinberg remembers Sister Thomas’s legacy with fondness. During one of the community’s annual Halloween parades, for instance, Weinberg recalled that the nun wanted to be a flower pot. So her friends turned her into one — complete with a daisy headdress and an outfit covered with artificial leaves. Another year, she was dressed as an angel wearing flashing sunglasses.
But no matter what her disguise, everyone recognized her as the nun who marched along Southern Boulevard followed by children in costumes.
To many in this still struggling community, Sister Thomas is more than the lovable figure with snowy white hair who likes to joke around and hug neighborhood youngsters. To them, she is the activist nun who fought along Father Louis Gigante in the 1960s and 70s when many politicians had written off the area due to continuing fires and gun violence.
Last Sept. 3, the Brooklyn native marked her 60 years in the Sisters of Charity congregation. A special mass was held in her honor and it was attended by Gigante and U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano. But her abrupt dismissal by the new pastor dampened the celebratory mood.
“It was a very difficult year,” Sister Thomas said, the lines in her forehead tightening, her blue eyes looking troubled.
Angela Centeno, 72, has been a parishioner of St. Athanasius for 51 years. She is no longer attending mass there since Rivas took over because she thinks the new priest does not respect Sister Thomas.
“I feel so bad,” Centeno said. She said that Rivas told parishioners that if they do not like his management, “don’t come to this church.”
True to her reputation as a reformist nun who once faced down city officials including then-Mayor Edward Koch, Sister Thomas insisted she is not going away.
“Even in my older age now, I may not be able to run as fast as I do, but my heart is open to everyone,” Sister Thomas said. Despite being kicked out of the rectory, she is staying with the parish. For the last three years, she has been staying alone at an apartment across the street from St. Athanasius. The 105-unit building where she lives is owned by the non-profit housing agency SEBCO.
Sister Thomas said she would be “distraught” if told to go to another mission, “because my heart is here and it will always be here.”
Sister Thomas first came to Hunts Point in 1962 “out of obedience” to her congregation the Sisters of Charity to teach at St. Athanasius School. The Bronx was “starting to go bad” at that point, said Gigante, who remembered Sister Thomas for wearing a habit, which he described as “a funny bonnet in her head.”
Due to Sister Thomas’ heart condition, her movement these days is mostly restricted to the garage, which serves as her de facto office, or at her building, which was built in 2008 and was named after her. When she can, she also attends the daily mass, even the ones officiated by Rivas.
In the past couple of years, Sister Thomas underwent two heart bypass surgeries, consequently affecting her blood circulation and causing acute swelling of her legs hidden under her long fuchsia skirt. After reforms were instituted in the Catholic church in 1965, she switched to regular clothing in place of the typical nun’s habit.
Sister Thomas credits her upbringing for shaping her outlook in life. She was born on Aug. 3, 1933 in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn to Thomas Collins and Gertrude DeGenaro-Collins. Her parents named her Trude Collins. She had one younger brother. They came from a mix of Irish and Italian families, although she would also refer to herself as an adopted Puerto Rican because of her affinity to Hunts Point’s Latino community.
Growing up, Sister Thomas knew she wanted to be a nun. At age seven, she recalled dressing up as a nun. She said she was influenced by her parents’ community involvement and service to the parish. Her father was in the military while his mother was a housewife.
As a teenager, Sister Thomas confessed earning the ire of her father once when she missed her curfew after accompanying a childhood friend to a dance.
After attending St. Mary’s, Mother of Jesus School and Bishop McDonell Memorial High School in Brooklyn, she joined the religious order Sisters of Charity and studied at College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Bronx. She also took the name Sister Thomas.
Since then she has dedicated her life to serving Hunts Point. Living with the people she serves is her expression of faith in God, she said.
As for her detractors, Sister Thomas said she has “forgiven them,” including Rivas.
“Every day is a celebration for me because I love what I am doing,” she said smiling.