There are approximately 200 Filippini Sisters left in the U.S—a steep decline from fifty years ago. Villa Walsh, located in Morristown, NJ, serves as the “motherhouse” where many postulates begin their life in the Sisterhood. It also serves as a health care facility for those Sisters who are elderly, infirm, no longer able to teach, or at the end stage of their lives. Their age’s range from 69 to 103 years—many have celebrated over 75 years of dedicated service in the Order.
At 100 years of age, Sr. Mary Testa enjoys playing Scrabble every day in the Infirmary’s Community Room. The scattered tiles spell words related to teaching such as: schools, teachers, pupils, books, girls, boys, and years.
Sometimes when Sr. Mary and I would talk, she would stop and recite this cute little limerick.
“Holy Moses King of the Jews, bought his wife a pair of shoes, when the shoes began to wear, Holy Moses began to swear.”
How could you not laugh?
Alzheimer’s and Dementia are very common amongst the elderly Sisters.
The Villa Walsh Infirmary is a home-care facility which houses approximately eighty aging Sisters that once—a long time ago— were welcomed as young aspirants to the Sisterhood.
A Sister who works in the infirmary library, takes time out of her day to play an on-line game of Black Widow Solitaire.
One day I asked, Sr. Mary, what do you think heaven is like?
Her reply was simple. “No one really knows. Only God knows.”
She then proceeds to tell me a story on how she attended mass in the chapel of the motherhouse and the priest recited out loud the names of the deceased sisters. When he mentions her name, Sr. Mary Fattorusso, without hesitation, hands begin to wave and Sr. Mary yells out in the middle of mass. “Hey I’m not dead, I’m sitting right here!”
Inspired by her teacher, the news of Sr. Mary’s religious vocation hit her family like a bomb when she at thirteen said, “Today I want to leave and become a nun.” Her shocked mother replied, “You will never make it two weeks!” It’s been 78 years since that announcement.
Was it hard to say good-bye to your parents at such a young age?
“When I first entered the convent as a teenager I was very homesick. At that time, going home for visits was not part of the convent life as it is today. Parents were permitted to visit once a month. This hallway was my secret place where I would cry almost every day until my home-sickness wore off.”
How old were you when you decided to become a nun?
Sr. Margherita Marchione: “I decided to enter the order at thirteen. I was making my confirmation. It was the first time in my life that I’ve seen a Bishop. He spoke and his piercing eyes met mine,” he said, “And if there is any young girl of Italian extraction who wishes to become a nun, she must join the Religious Teachers Filippini.”
“ For me this was the voice of God. I told my family of my decision at the dinner table. They where stunned. They then realized that my childish plan was not a whim and we set off to the Villa. I later became a postulate dressed in a black veil and dress. I’m ninety three now.”
Sr. Margherita known by many as the “The Fighting Nun” does not fit the secular stereotype of the traditional nun.
She has dedicated herself in her later years to the fight to restore the truth and address the unjust attacks against the role of Pope Pius XII during World World II and the Holocaust—clearing his name and seeing him beatified.
The Sisters enjoy gifts of slippers, crafts, crossword puzzles, and shampoo donated by local organizations.
One of the oldest living Filippini Sisters, at 103, prays in the chapel.
Daily life is filled with routines. Day after day passes in the same way.
There is a time to sleep,
A time to eat,
A time for pills,
A time to visit,
And a time for prayer.
What is your biggest guilty pleasure?
Sr. Mary: “Guilty pleasure? I would have to say, homemade Italian cookies and game shows. I love to watch game shows—especially Wheel of Fortune.
I also enjoy playing Bingo with the other Sisters."
“Each day that I pass in front of the altar here at Villa Walsh, I remember the symbolic action I performed at the age of sixteen. On that day, I received the gold ring that I have worn since then, fully understanding the significance of my commitment. I understood that Christ promised to be present forever, and that He would love, honor and accept me as His Spouse.”
Religious paintings, documents, and historical memorabilia now adorn the walls and fill many of the three-floor mansion rooms which was once a summer residence to Louis Charles Gillespie and his nine children, a multimillionaire businessman from Virginia.
What does it mean to be a Sister?
Sr. Marie Roccapriore: “Being a Sister is both an identifying and sacred title. I not only do the things of a Sister but I share that title with other consecrated women. I claim the title of a religious woman, promising to live in poverty, chastity and obedience with joy and an open heart. The title outwardly reveals that God has chosen me to be his servant and carry out his plan to live the Gospel values in the world.”
Sr. Mary keeps herself busy crocheting baby clothing for friends and crafting items for the Sisters’ Annual Christmas Sale.
Approximately eighty aging Sisters live in the long-term care facility of Villa Walsh. They are able to maintain the opportunity to stay within the boundaries of their community encircled by Sisterly support.
How has your calling been an inspiration to others?
Sr. Margherita: “I believe I was called to follow in the footsteps of Saint Lucy Filippini. Through self-discipline, contemplation, simplicity of life, dedication to others and daily prayer, I believe that I have achieved spiritual maturity.”
What is one of your fondest memories as a Filippini Sister?
Sr. Mary: “Teaching was a rewarding experience in my life. I taught junior high for over 60 years. I encouraged students to learn that in the eyes of God nothing else counts except honest effort and generous motives and that, with divine grace, success is within the grasp of everyone.”