Growing up in an Italian household means a lot of food, loud chatter, drama, and a lot of religion…preferably Roman Catholicism. In my family, not only did we have all of the above, we had il capo dei I capi, Sr. Lucy Sabatini, or in the more demonstrative for me, Aunt Lucy.
When your mother’s sister is a nun, and since life began, you know nothing else, you find it odd that nobody else lives in the sea of fire and brimstone, nor clergy in their family. I knew more about the do’s and don’t’s of my religion by the time I was in nursery school. Aunt Lucy was not a wishy-washy cosmo-nun with no veil and cute shoes. She was what you would find on Wikipedia when you looked up “nun”:
Unwavering Religious GI who follows Jesus and his teachings to the letter of the law without renunciation, hesitation, or modern guidelines. Black and white, whether describing apparel or thought are the only colors that exist. They believe priests are too liberal and live lives similar to civilians, which defies the law of marriage to the church.
And, married to the Church she was. Her love was the Lord. The same commitment a good wife has to her husband, her provider, her mate for life is the same servant she was to Christ. Unlike a husband and a wife who hopefully communicate through verbal transactions, my aunt only communicated through prayer, faith and trust. Her only responses came from the spiritual world, and she believed always in that communication. God had her back, and she certainly had his.
As a kid, I would get annoyed that a half hour before Mass, she would be waiting at the door wondering why we were not piling in the car to get to the Church BEFORE mass started. Like a teenager going to a concert to avoid the crowds. Once we got there, she would leave us far behind, and find the very first pew, the one that got her closest to the altar. If she could sit on the altar with the priest, and was invited to do so, without reservation, she would. There was no embarrassment, no hesitation. She was worshiping our Lord in her dedicated trance and like Bernadette in front of the Blessed Mother, she stayed.
She liked to remind me of the time she asked me, after I had all my eight children, that when I was about ten, she asked what I wanted to do when I grew up. I said “Get married and have a lot of kids.” She responded, “Do you think maybe the Lord wants you to be a nun?’ Now, you are talking to a kid who was taught by nuns since the first grade and wanted nothing to do with this lifestyle at all. She told me later on that I just stared at her and ran out of the room asking for my mother. I can laugh now, and she laughed then, but I was mortified.
When she was around her family, she kind of let her habit down, we did have some laughs…especially when she was with her sisters and her brother. I would love hearing stories of their life in the Bronx, with my grandmother and grandfather, their really cheap landlord, Mr. Fillipone, and so many other tales that pulled her out of missionary zone for a few moments, enough to laugh and love. She did have a good sense of humor. She came with us to Italy many times, and those memories were indelible. Especially the time I went with her alone…I was about 20, and when the plane touched down at Fiumicino, instead of a clap, this little nun who was pinned to her Rosary for eight hours rallied for a Baptist like “Praise the Lord!” shout out to her man. I wanted to dissolve with the life vest located under the seat in front of me.
But, as I got older, I understood her better and better. I was privy to her life steps thanks to my mother, her sister, who would tell me how she entered the convent as a novice at age 17, and it was a good thing she was cloistered because my Nonno, her father, wanted to kill her. She could only communicate by letter, and was not able to attend my mother’s wedding. That dedication only comes by a special calling to a limited few who are staunch believers with no other mission in life except to spread the word of the Lord. If you consider yourself a good Catholic…don’t buy yourself a trophy t-shirt until you consider the life my aunt lead.
I remember when my mother passed away in 1996, instead of being riddled with grief, which maybe deep down inside she was, she looked at the bright side when my mother was passing away, “she is going to the Lord.” Everyone should embrace that goal. At that moment, I was like, “Seriously, this is my mother. Stop. Bring her back.” But, now I can comprehend she felt my mother had achieved the ultimate..
She was steeped in her love of children and education, earning a Masters Degree in Spanish and becoming principal of St. Francis School in Poughkeepsie, NY for many many years. She used to give me a piece of chalk and waltz me into a classroom while class was going on, and let me draw on the board. I loved it! However, that visit was probably because my mother was taking cooking classes at the CIA nearby, and she would drop me at the school, and then the convent for an overnight..I was creeped out as I remember, but it was etched in memory, and today, if I had the chance I would go back and do it again, I would, realizing the privilege to be in the presence of the Lord’s servants.
She grabbed me and my friend to work in an anti-abortion clinic. Her adherence of Right to Life was staunch and solid. There was never, ever any excuse to end life unless the Lord chose that time. I learned patience and understanding, and how to be less judgmental of those who may not know better. I became an unshakable Right to Lifer myself. I also found out during that period that Sister Lucy Sabatini had a criminal record…for refusing to unbarricade herself from the front of an abortion clinic. She was arrested and proud of it. The police sweetly let her go, but those tiny embroidered feet always clad her habit until her final days.
After Poughkeepsie, she was stationed at Nazareth Nursery, on W. 15th street in Chelsea (New York City). Nazareth was the only Catholic Montessori school in the state, and for over thirty years, she ran it, with love…love of the Lord, love of children, love of education. With that, she never oscillated in her stringent laws of the Lord. She said a lesbian couple had come in to register their child. In the most eloquent yet directly centered way, she told the couple, “The Catholic Church does not support same sex unions. We are happy to have your child, but only one of you can register as a mother.” End of story. If they walked, they walked. She would not fall victim to a test of what she knew as right and wrong.
When Nazareth Nursery abruptly closed in 2015, life as my aunt knew it changed. The zest, the rhapsodical life she lead for the Lord and His children would ultimately be defeated. In those five years since it’s sale, I saw a decline in my Aunt I would never have imagined. She deflated like a balloon losing its helium, and I believe, in my heart, she pushed for her final goal, the final prize… meeting the Lord. It took five years, and thanks to the buoyant genes on the DiCicco, her mother, my Nonna’s side of the family, she lived just steps past her 91st birthday in June.
Although we can now sit around the proverbial campfire and tell many “Aunt Lucy” stories, one, among many stays in my mind…it was my daughter Brynn’s first Holy Communion. Of course, any religious celebrations were marked with her presence. We were leaving the house for Mass, and Brynn had not eaten. I gave her a quick bagel, and when my aunt saw this transaction she almost catapulted herself across the room to insure the bagel saw its final demise. “It’s less than an hour before Mass!” Brynn stood there frozen in time, turned and walked her way over to the garbage and spit it out. Mission accomplished.
And, that is exactly what she was…a missionary. She believed in everything she said, did and slept well never wondering if what she said or did was incorrect. That alone is a gift from the Lord. Some may have found her fire and brimstone approach an annoyance. Debating with Aunt Lucy was not a simple endeavor, and you had to face the fact that even at commencement of the debate, you started on the losing end. You could walk away aggravated, or choose to digest her simple, thoughtful words of wisdom. And, if you choose to follow the Lord, her answer was always the right answer.
A friend said to me upon her death…”I once asked your aunt, what is the meaning of life.” Her quick, immediate response, “To serve others.” And that she did…from the Lord, to children, to the unborn..it was never about her. It was indeed, about others.
Today, at 53, I can thank her for what I used to possibly find annoying, has morphed into the greatest gift next to my children: my love of the Lord, my religion, my church and the desire to be altruistic and philanthropic. My insider information of right and wrong, saints, Church history is all from her…some subliminal, some very direct. When my skirts were too short, she would tell me the story of St. Maria Goretti, who was raped at twelve by her 18 year old neighbor, Alessandro, dying a virgin and a martyr. I never forgot the story, and she infused a me a love of patron saints, and who can do what in a time of crisis.
Oh, and NEVER receive Communion in a Church that is NOT Roman Catholic…for shame.
May we all learn, in her honor, to stand in the cement of our conviction, and to be able to walk away, with utmost confidence and no afterthought, when we are presented with diabolic temptation or the adversity which might cloud right from wrong. It is the most fortifying and confident way to live life.
Rest in peace, Aunt Lucy. If anyone deserves the fast road to heaven, it’s you, and waiting, I am sure were Nonna, Nonno, Aunt Lena, my my mom, my dad, Aunt Lena, Uncle Peter…..and above all the litany of saints, the Blessed Mother and the Lord himself to escort you with the loudest trumpets and the angels into paradise..our final reward where life has not ended, only changed. Watch over us so we may chose the same path, and avert any challenges and mortal distractions you overcame to be a true, unequivocal follower of Christ.