Sister Frances Devine marked her 100th birthday on Aug. 4 at the Mount Saint Vincent Convent, surrounded by her family of nearly eight decades — the Sisters of Charity.
A few days later, pictures of that birthday celebration were spread across a table in front of her at the convent, something Devine looked at and smiled. It certainly was one celebration to remember.
“Last Saturday was wonderful,” Devine said. “It was a joyful, happy gathering of community, and all I had to do was breathe.”
There were so many guests joining her that, in fact, Devine needed three birthday cakes. There she shared stories about her past 100 years living in God’s creation.
Devine may use a motorized chair to get around now, but she doesn’t miss a beat. Her memory is sharp, especially when she talks about her experience as a nun.
“I’ve lived through two wars, the Great Depression, outlived two pastors for whom I worked under, taught over 5,000 students, a principal of two high schools, 27 years working with men and women in Long Island — and you’re telling me when to go to bed at night,” Devine said with a laugh.
Born in Bay Ridge, Devine entered the Sisters of Charity soon after earning her history degree from the College of Mount Saint Vincent in 1939. For 79 years, she devoted her life to education and pastoral ministry.
Devine taught at Blessed Sacrament School in Soundview, and was principal at Cardinal Spellman High School near Eastchester. She received her master’s in history from Fordham University, and studied at the Jesuit School of theology in California.
Devine felt called into service after graduating high school. She sat her mother down for an important conversation about her future.
“My mother insisted that I go to college, so I said, well I’ll go to college up at Halifax Charities in Scotia, Canada,” Devine said.
Halifax Charities is one of the branches of Catholic sisters located throughout the United States. But traveling from Brooklyn to Nova Scotia would be too much for her family, so she decided to attend college here at The Mount.
After teaching at multiple schools Devine felt that she was drawn more toward a heavenly calling.
“I felt that I was called into pastoral ministry, and not high school administration,” Devine said.
Of all the places she has worked, Devine has spent the most time at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, which has led to unexpected and enduring friendships. The seed of one of her strongest friendships was planted in 1954 when a young Eileen McGrory was her student. Now, McGrory and Devine traverse the same halls at the Mount Saint Vincent Convent.
One thing that McGrory recalls about being Devine’s student was how organized she was.
“She taught great discipline,” McGrory said. “She was always prepared for her classes with outlines that spread across the board with a full agenda of what was going to be covered.”
Organization and punctuality were hallmarks of Devine’s tenure at The Mount. Oftentimes, when a student strolled into class late Devine didn’t need to say anything.
“I would give a look and that would be it,” she said.
Once her career in education was over, Devine found a job on Long Island in parish outreach. Among her responsibilities in parish outreach, she often helped parishioners of different ages through the grieving process. One of the hardest parts of this for Devine was helping parents who had just lost their children.
“That was the most difficult part because their children was always their child regardless of how old or young,” Devine said.
Even with God on her side, Devine still felt challenged. Yet, it was still rewarding.
“I was most myself in the ministry with the people in Long Island because I was with them in their grief, in their tears, and in their happiness,” Devine said. “In administration you have to be the bad guy.”
Now retired at the convent, Devine can’t imagine living another life. In her day, only a small percentage of women held positions of authority, like principals or heads of hospitals McGrory said.
“I think it’s always important to remember women, religious sisters like ourselves,” McGrory said. “We just did all those things and I think that her life clearly says that we were a leadership of women long before the corporate world recognized it.”