The North Fork is very much a giving place.
As much as it changes with each passing year, a sense of generosity between neighbors remains.
This holiday season, we at northforker want to pay tribute to some of the charities that have helped people in our communities live fuller lives.
This month, we’ve been sharing the stories of these organizations and let you know how you can help them further their missions.
“She is everything for someone who is here and has nothing — no family or friends.”
That’s how Margarito Gonzalez, a longtime attendee of the Spanish language Mass at St. Agnes R.C. Church in Greenport, described Sister Margaret Smyth in 2017.
The occasion was her 60 years working in religion. And that evening’s Mass was particularly crowded. Not only were the pews filled, but so too were the benches at the back of the church. The foyer was crowded with even more people, happy to stand for an evening celebrating the beloved nun.
Of course, most in attendance were members of the North Fork’s Hispanic population, a segment of the community that has grown substantially since Sister Margaret helped found North Fork Spanish Apostolate in 1997.
The timing of the ministry’s launch was no accident. It arrived at a time when more and more people were arriving on the North Fork from Central and South America seeking work, mainly in agriculture.
A member of the Sisters of St. Dominic of Amityville, Sister Margaret, who is bilingual and previously worked as a Spanish teacher and school administrator in Brooklyn, was hired by the Diocese of Rockville Centre to develop the program.
“I had business cards made up and I started following people into King Kullen, Taco Bell, just talking to them and seeing what their needs were,” she said of the Apostolate’s early days. “I’d visit their homes and say, ‘I’m here, what are you looking for?’ ”
To prepare for the new role, Sister Margaret visited Guatemala and El Salvador to better understand the culture of the people she would be helping. Before North Fork Spanish Apostolate, there really wasn’t something similar on the North Fork, specific to serving the needs of Hispanic residents. A Guatemalan priest held Spanish Masses in Riverhead and Cutchogue, but Sister Margaret quickly learned there was a big need for social support services as well. Those needs are ever-evolving.
The organization’s website lists 11 broad categories of support it provides — everything from health care education to parenting skills workshops to providing legal protection in civil matters — and they run a thrift shop and food pantry, too.
Every weekend they still host Spanish language masses in Greenport and Riverhead, where Sister Margaret maintains an office at the former St. John’s Elementary School.
“As people come in, you respond to what the needs are and it is always changing,” she said. Even domestic violence issues, help with navigating a divorce or connecting someone with a counselor are things Sister Margaret is asked to do.
In 2020, with COVID-19 impacting local nonprofits, the North Fork Spanish Apostolate has seen an increase in demand from people seeking financial support. These are people who came to this country for work that wasn’t there at all times this year.
“Rent, medical bills, even basic bills, like electricity. We always had that but now we have more of it,” she said.
Humor is one more thing the now 81-year-old Sister Margaret said she tries to bring into the lives of the people she helps. She’s learned that when you are separated from family and friends or in need of support, laughter is often a missing ingredient in your life.
“I try to bring some jokes into their lives,” she said. “My jokes are bad, but I tell them anyway.”
While much of the Apostolate’s work, in particular the classes they provide, was done virtually this year, this past week was a busy one as Sister Margaret and her team worked to connect with families to make this Christmas a happy one. They provided gifts last Friday to 300 children and on Monday kept at it to make sure even more needs were met.
It’s a tireless gig for a woman who nearly 25 years ago was handing out business cards because she knew the need was there.
If you want to know just how much of an impact Sister Margaret and the North Fork Spanish Apostolate have had in the years since, you just have to look back at that celebration in 2017, where perhaps Monsignor Joe Staudt, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Cutchogue said it best.
“She has been our version of St. Mother Teresa,” he said.
How to help?
Online donations can be made at any time at sistersofstdominic.org/donate. Or you can send a donation directly care of Sister Margaret Smyth at 546 St. John’s Place, Riverhead, NY 11901.