Sr. Margaret Smyth at a rally for immigration reform in in Riverhead on Oct. 16, 2021. DENISE CIVILETTI
Sr. Margaret Smyth speaking at a Riverhead Town Board public hearing in August 2021. DENISE CIVILETTI
Sr. Margaret in her office on Oct. 6, 2017. MARIA DEL MAR PIEDRABUENA
The East End has lost a fierce advocate for justice and community.
Sister Margaret Rose Smyth, who ran the North Fork Spanish Apostolate for more than 20 years, died at her home in Riverhead. She was 83 years old.
Sr. Margaret, a member of the Sisters of St. Dominic of Amityville, was known for her passionate devotion to migrant workers and the immigrant communities of the East End.
At the helm of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate for all but three of its 26 years, Sr. Margaret was an icon of the Latino community, the person others turned to for help with everything from food to put on their table to advocacy in justice court when an employer failed to pay a worker’s wages.
She was, by all accounts, a force to be reckoned with.
“There’s nobody like her. The impression she made on this community will go on and on. Everybody around here is just broken-hearted,” said Eileen Mattausch, a volunteer who worked with Sr. Margaret for nearly 20 years.
“There’s going to be a tremendous hole. All along, you know, we will have always said, no one else, no one could ever fill the shoes that she wore,” Mattausch said.
In addition to running the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, Sr. Margaret has since September 2014, also run the social ministry at St. John the Evangelist Church in Riverhead. The North Fork Spanish Apostolate moved its offices to the former parish school that month, and the two organizations, under her tireless leadership, worked together to help community members in need.
When Sr. Margaret didn’t arrive at the parish center this morning to work on putting together Christmas gifts for distribution, and could not be reached by phone, a volunteer and a parish worker went to her apartment to look for her.
“We checked the living room and then we went to the bedroom and that’s when we found her like she was asleep,” said Liz Cardenas, religious formation coordinator at St. John the Evangelist. “The truth is that she went in peace. She had a face of peace, of tranquility. She went to rest in the arms of the Lord.”
Born on October 29, 1939, Margaret Rose Smyth was the daughter of Irish immigrants. She grew up in Woodside, Queens — “a very big Irish community,” she said in a 2018 RiverheadLOCAL interview. She was one of three children in a family she described as very religious.
“I was always doing something that was helping people,” she recalled.
She entered the convent at age 17.
“I always felt that the good Lord wanted me to be able to give most of my life to be able to help people. And they knew at that time, the way to do that was to be a nun,” she said. “There were less things that were open to women then. It’s different for women today. I certainly don’t regret the choices I’ve made.”
She trained to become a teacher and taught at Catholic elementary schools in Queens, and then went on to teach Spanish at a high school in Brooklyn. She then served as a principal at two Catholic elementary schools.
“I loved being in school,” Sr. Margaret said. She was still in touch with her students from decades ago. “I loved being a teacher,” she said.
She later became an associate pastor in East New York, Brooklyn, where she trained to be a community organizer. She already was no stranger to that kind of work. She marched with labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez in the 1960s.
“When people aren’t being paid or have terrible living conditions or things like that,” she said, “we’ve got to do something.”
Sr. Margaret held a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from St. John’s University and master’s degrees in urban education and spiritual studies from Fordham University.
“Sr. Margaret was a life-changer and a game-changer for me. In the late ’90s, when I first became an immigrant rights advocate, Sr. Margaret took me in what I still call a ‘justice caravan’ to visit an abandoned farmhouse near Briermere Farms on the North Fork,” recalled Richard Koubek, community outreach coordinator for Long Island Jobs with Justice.
“In that falling-down house lived about 40 young Mexican boys and men, all workers on the nearby vineyards. They were paying $250 a month each for rent and had no furniture or electricity,” he said. “What they did have was Sr. Margaret, who got them air mattresses, made sure they had food, and watched over them like a mother. This is why many called her ‘Mama’ instead of ‘Sister.’ She was a true champion of the poor,” Koubek said.
“It leaves a great void in me, my mother was far away, and Sister Margarita was like my mother here. I was in the youth group, and she always supported us so that we were on the right path, that we did the right thing,” said Iván Sacor, a parishioner at St. John the Evangelist Church in Riverhead.
“For us, the immigrant community, we are very devastated,” Sacor said. “She was a great leader.”
Sacor said he remembers her “as a mother, a person who was always there for others, as a religious, and also for moral support, financial support, whatever she could give, she gave it.”
He recalled how Sr. Margaret advocated for respect for the immigrant community on the East End.”She opened doors for many. She helped many people to become residents and citizens, too,” he said.
“We lost a great support. It is very hard. Thank God she was with us for a long time, but it hurts a lot,” Sacor said.
A Spanish language wake will be held on Wednesday, from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m., at St. John the Evangelist Church A wake will be held on Thursday, from 9:45 to 11 a.m., at the church, with a funeral service immediately following. It will be live-streamed on the church’s YouTube channel, stjohnriverhead.
One fine body…