Mourners filled the sanctuary at St. John the Evangelist Church in Riverhead Wednesday evening to say goodbye to Sr. Margaret Smyth. Photo: Maria del Mar Piedrabuena

Sister Margaret Smyth, or Madre Margarita as local Latinos affectionately called her, lived her life in service to the community. On Wednesday evening, hundreds turned out for a wake and prayer service in Spanish at St. John the Evangelist R.C. Church in Riverhead to honor and remember the woman whose indomitable spirit, tenacity, and devotion touched the lives of many throughout the region, lighting a flame that will continue to burn bright for generations to come. 

Filled to capacity, an estimated 800 people, the vast majority Latino families, filled the pews and corridors of the church. A table with various pictures, posters, and photo albums of a smiling and joyful Sr. Margaret—who was 83 years old and died at her home in downtown Riverhead over the weekend— greeted mourners. (Read obituary)

“I am so happy so many people came today,” North Fork Spanish Apostolate volunteer of 17 years Consuelo Ludlam said. “They are recognizing all that she gave them. She didn’t give them money, she gave them love, faith, and religion. She loved them so much, each one of them, even when she  scolded someone, she then thought about whoever it was, and prayed for them and was there for them.”

“She was an angel, and always will be,” Ludlam said. “It gives me peace to know that she died so peacefully. She had a lot of heart issues and had not been well for some time. She had done her work, and God called her home.”

Friends, coworkers, and scores of people who were aided by Sr. Margaret over the years came to bid an emotional farewell. Photo: Maria del Mar Piedrabuena

Throughout the service, several Latino parishioners and leaders at St. John’s and St. Agnes in Greenport— two of three Catholic churches on the North Fork where Sr. Margaret helped create a Spanish Mass— spoke movingly of their experiences with her, sometimes breaking down in tears,  painting a picture of a fierce advocate who fought tirelessly for justice, community, and inclusion, always with a sharp wit and a smile, surrounding herself and others with endless love. 

“She was like a mother to many immigrants, especially newcomers,” parishioner Geremias Boch said. “She welcomed us and treated us like her own family. She gave us so much love. Now that she’s gone, our hearts are broken, but she has left many beautiful things in our lives. Teachings, like how to live in this country, how to adapt. She has taught us so much.”

“She planted a seed in the hearts of many Latinos and people from around the world, and thanks to her, we are now a big community, because it wasn’t like that before she came. She gave everything she had to give, as a person and as a nun, as a mother of an entire community,” Boch said. “I am very sad,  but also happy because I know we have a champion in Heaven, she will always intercede for the community from there.”

“She was like a mother to many immigrants, especially newcomers,” said Geremias Boch. Photo: Maria del Mar Piedrabuena

Elvin Mora of Greenport met Sr. Margaret in 1998. He remembered when he first learned of her. He was still in his late teens and was impressed with this new nun, who had been knocking on doors, and going to laundromats, farms, and delis throughout the North Fork, looking for the immigrants she knew lived there. He recalled how, once she started reaching people, she helped them establish a Spanish Mass, which in time became three services, at the Catholic churches in Greenport, Cutchogue, and Riverhead.

“There was only a few of us, but even with a few, we had a Mass in Spanish, and we formed a chorus,” Mora recalled, and added jokingly, “Sr. Margaret said, ‘Oh my! You don’t sing too bad, but you’re not too good-looking either, we better look for some handsome ones so more people come to church.'” 

Mora explained how little by little, the churches started filling, several groups were formed, and what started as something small grew into a fully fleshed ministry. 

“Throughout all of it, the sparkle in her eyes never dimmed and she had a heart full of joy,” Mora said. “If she saw us today, she would be so happy,” he cried.

Like others before him, Mora explained how Sr. Margaret helped him. She was there for him, helping him navigate insurance claims, hospital bills, and disability after an accident in 1999. 

” I think she loved us so much because she saw herself in us,” said Elvin Mora. Photo: Maria del Mar Piedrabuena

She accompanied others to immigration court or appointments. She fought for a myriad of causes that would help advance the rights of people, from just wages for workers to language access, fair housing, and anti-discrimination policies. She provided life-saving services, like food and clothes, identification cards, and more. She was the liaison between the community and towns, consulates, funeral homes, courts, hospitals, and many other individuals and organizations. She helped establish education workshops, from English for non-native speakers, to public speaking, community organizing, and even cooking. She assisted in organizing hundreds of multicultural events, from Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners to live Viacrucis in Spanish and festivals through the North Fork. She was there for countless weddings, births, first communions, and confirmations. She was at the forefront of every issue for decades, like campaigning for access to driver’s licenses for all, fighting for the excluded workers’ fund during the pandemic, or advocating for the “working poor” as recently as June, when she spoke before the Suffolk County legislature. 

“Certainly things weren’t always easy, our community faces difficult issues, but Sr. Margaret always tried to find a solution, to help in some way,” Mora said. 

” I think she loved us so much because she saw herself in us,” he said. “She told us many times about how she lived in a one-bedroom apartment growing up, and even had to share her bed with her sister sometimes. That made me think and I realized that’s why she  fought so much for us and our rights because, despite our different cultures or where we come from, our families are the same, we are all human.”

A collage of photos portrayed the life of Sr. Margaret in the Latino community. Photo: Maria del Mar Piedrabuena

Once the speakers finished, the entire church spontaneously started singing, with tears in their eyes, a song by Brazilian singer-songwriter Roberto Carlos, the lyrics perfectly encapsulating Sr. Margaret.

Diocese of Rockville Centre Auxiliary Bishop Miguel Romero offered the final prayer. 

“She has not died, she is resting. The Lord has called her to eternal life,” he ministered. 

At the end of the service, mourners filed past Sr. Margaret’s flower-surrounded coffin one by one, many stopping to say a final goodbye and to pay their respects one last time. 

“Thank you Madre Margarita, thank you. You left a void in all of us that will be impossible to fill. Rest in the arms of the Lord, Hermana Margarita, we will always, always remember you,” Mora sobbed, echoing the sentiments of hundreds. 

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María del Mar is a contributor to RiverheadLOCAL and the editor and founder of Tu Prensa Local, a Spanish-language local news outlet on Long Island. Maria has won several awards for her work, including a first place best column award from the New York Press Association. Email Maria