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Honoring a standout sister in Norwood

Sr. Catherine poses with a friend. Photo: courtesy Sr. Anne Queenan

Sr. Catherine, left, poses with a friend. Photo: courtesy Sr. Anne Queenan

Dressed in a purple skirt suit and printed blouse, Sister Catherine Naughton squeezed hands, shared hugs, and greeted approximately 200 guests outside St. Brendan Catholic Church in the Norwood section of the Bronx.  The small 68-year-old nun paused to embrace a more robust Claire McCabe, 80, who hugged back – hard.

“If Sister Catherine left, our leisure club would fall apart,” McCabe said, of the church’s group for senior outings, activities, and exercise.

Naughton is revered for her ministry to seniors, and luckily for McCabe, she has no plans to retire.  The guests who came on an autumn Saturday to honor her 50 years of Catholic life at a Golden Jubilee mass included her family and her Dominican sisters from Sparkill, N.Y., where her order is based.

A dynamic community activist, Naughton is one of a shrinking group of women in religious life.  According to the Index of Leading Catholic Indicators, there were 180,000 sisters in 1965.  By 2020 there will be just 40,000.

Naughton began her calling when Norwood was still full of McCabes.  Today, the neighborhood is half Hispanic.

In a changing community, Naughton has been a constant source of strength for many.  “Sister really has been an inspiration to me personally,” said the Rev. George Stewart, 42, pastor of St. Brendan and officiant at Naughton’s mass.  “As a man, as a priest, and as a pastor.”

For the past eight years, Naughton has run St. Brendan’s senior outreach program for more than 100 regular participants; it includes a leisure club, exercise classes, and a lunch program.  The 102-year-old parish boasts between 1,700 and 2,000 congregants, approximately 25 percent of whom are over age 65.

Naughton has also made a mark ministering to the parish’s sick.  “When Paul was in the hospital, she was at his bedside, bringing meals,” said Jeanne Hveem, 64, speaking of her husband, a deacon at St. Brendan, who recently suffered a heart attack.

Stewart stressed the importance of Naughton’s leadership role.  “She’s often my eyes and ears to what’s going on,” said Stewart.  “Who is sick, who is in the hospital, even who has passed.”  After a short commute from her home in Riverdale, she spends hours at a time in nursing homes and hospitals.

She started that committed approach to ministry 50 years ago on Sept. 8, when she and 57 other young women became Dominican sisters at Sparkill.  St. Dominic founded the Dominican Order in the 13th century with an emphasis on active service; hundreds of years ago, its friars traveled rather than live sequestered in monasteries.  In 1876, Alice Mary Thorpe founded the Dominican Sisters of Our Lady of the Rosary.  The sisters came to St. Brendan in 1912 to start a religious education program at the new parish school.

Naughton came to St. Brendan in 2002.  Born in Washington Heights and a self-professed “city girl,” she was glad to be back in the Bronx, where she had worked 45 years ago.  Naughton had been looking for a new place to minister to seniors, and she sent letters to many parishes and to Rev. Patrick Hennessey, St. Brendan’s now-deceased former pastor, who hired her and put her in charge of senior outreach.

But Naughton hasn’t always worked with seniors.  Early in her career, sisters were not allowed to choose their own ministry, and she trained to be a teacher.  She said that when the policy changed in the aftermath of Vatican II, it was a defining moment for her.  “We’ve received the freedom to follow where our gifts are,” she said.  She tried her hand as a teacher, a hospital chaplain, and a senior housing worker, among other roles.

“I’m a Gemini,” she joked.  “So we kind of dabble!”  Her senior housing work led her to senior outreach, and she has not looked back.

At Naughton’s mass, Stewart presented her with a plaque and bouquet in appreciation.  “Why don’t you move to the center,” he asked from the altar, “so we can embarrass you some more.”

The vision in purple didn’t skip a beat as she walked up to embrace Stewart, to great applause.  “It’s a blessed event,” she said.  “I’m very honored.”

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