Kevin Di Camillo writes regularly for The National Catholic Register and is a Lecturer in English Literature at Niagara University. His latest book is Now Chiefly Poetical, and with Rev. Lawrence Boadt he edited John Paul II in the Holy Land: In His Own Words. His work has been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian-Americana, and he was awarded the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he regularly attends Yale University’s School of Management Publishing Course.
My family was blessed with having three sisters not only in blood relation, but in religion. Three of my great aunts became nuns: Sr. Mary Di Camillo, F.M.A. (1904-1999), Sr. Ann Dolores Di Camillo, OSF (1922-2000), and Sr. RoseMarie Basil Di Camillo, OSF (1926-2003). Out of 12 children, more than one-quarter of them joined a religious order.
I knew them only in their later years, but for me they were always the Mystic, the Drill Sergeant, and the Organist.
However, three of the remaining members of the original Di Camillo family are still alive and I spoke with my two great aunts (herein “aunts”): Angelica (age 92) and Theresa Regina (age 90) about their remembrances of their sisters.
“To begin with,” my aunt Theresa cautioned me, “it’s good to remember that my parents—your great-grandparents—did not encourage the vocations to the religious life. And in RoseMarie’s case, grandma actively discouraged her!”
When I asked my aunt why there was no encouragement of religious vocations on the part of her parents, she simply replied that “your great-grandparents were very realistic about what life was like as a religious. After all, it is a very difficult life-choice.”
With this caveat, both Theresa and Angelica have no memory of their eldest sibling: Sister Mary (“the mystic”) obtained papal dispensation to join the Salesians at the age of only sixteen.
“Mary was actually in the convent before either of us were even born,” my aunts told me. But they did remember when they first met her.
“Sr. Mary was allowed to come home from the convent in New Jersey because papa was ill. That was the first time we met her—and we were scared of her. We didn’t know her as our sister, we only knew her as a Sister!”
Though Sister Mary went on to obtain degrees in Education and taught for decades at Mary Help of Christians Academy in Haledon, New Jersey, she never lost her childlike sense of wonder. Her favorite prayer was simply repeating the name of Jesus.
“Sr. Mary was very unselfish,” recalls Theresa. “You couldn’t give her any gifts,” added Angelica, “because you knew she was just going to turn around and give it to someone else.”
This I can personally vouch for. Any gift I gave or brought to Sr. Mary from her brother, my grandfather, was dutifully turned over to her Superior, with a childlike smile.
Sr. Ann Dolores, a Franciscan of Allegany, was born on Jan 23, 1922. Her entrance into the Order of Saint Francis was delayed while she cared for her ailing father. “Ann Dolores took care of papa until he died—then she entered the Franciscans,” remembered aunt Angelica.
When I asked why Ann Dolores didn’t join the Salesians like her sister, Mary, Aunt Theresa reminded me that the Salesians had left our family parish, St. Joseph’s in Niagara Falls, and were replaced by the Allegany Franciscans.
Sr. Ann Dolores had the voice and gait of a drill sergeant and, before her visits back to Niagara Falls from the Allegany Convent, she would call Aunt Angelica in advance and “tell me what to have in stock for her visit: ‘make sure you have Peter Pan Peanut Butter and Colombian coffee!’ were her orders.”
But the street ran both ways: as the head dietician at St. Elizabeth Motherhouse, across the street from St. Bonaventure University, Sr. Ann Dolores took in an endless array of cousins, friends, friends of cousins, and various relatives from St. Bonnie’s and always gave them a hot meal and a “care package” for their dorm.
“Because she was in charge of the refectory, Sr. Ann Dolores was always given free samples by various food distributors and salesmen,” remembers Aunt Theresa. “She would just turn around and give these samples away to visitors, especially family members who went to school at St. Bonaventure’s.”
However, in one of those “when bad things happen to good people” moments, Sr. Ann Dolores, who had spent her life running the show at the kitchen of the Franciscans and feeding others, was stricken with a particularly debilitating case of Parkinson’s Disease in the early 1990s. Instead of marching around the dining hall she spent most of the last decade of her life in a wheelchair. And though her spirit remained unbroken it was certainly a dark night of the soul that lasted until her death in 2000.
“The side effect of some of the medications for Parkinson’s in those days involved severe bouts of anxiety,” recalled both my aunts. It was difficult to see a woman who had previously resembled a take-charge coach reduced, at times, to seemingly unreasonable fears.
However, when I visited her on the 4th of July 1997 (for no real reason), she seemed more her old self than I’d remembered and we laughed about the old days, when my parents would drive us down to see her and she’d load up our station wagon with an unending trove of food—despite the irony that my father owned a bakery.
Sr. RoseMarie Basil was the baby of twelve children: seven girls, and five boys. “RoseMarie was a free spirit and when she was thinking of entering the convent, she went on a last-second spending spree at the local women’s fashion store!” my aunt Angelica recalled with a laugh. “She seemed to vacillate on whether or not to enter the Franciscans—she even had a significant love interest who was so smitten with her he nearly proposed!” However, Sr. RoseMarie entered the Stella Niagara Franciscans where she showed her proficiency with the piano and especially the organ.
“She was always musically inclined, especially from a very young age on”, Aunt Theresa reminisced. “And the spirit always seemed to move her to play the family piano whenever there was work to be done!”
When I asked why RoseMarie (who took the name of Basil in religion) did not follow her sister Ann Dolores to Allegany, Theresa replied that “Her spiritual director was from Stella Niagara Education Park [in Lewiston, New York] and he steered her towards that group of Franciscans.”
“Very worldly and not afraid of the world” is how my aunt Angelica remembered her youngest sister, RoseMarie Basil. “She absolutely loved and lived music,” said Aunt Theresa. “And she did very well for her Franciscans by becoming a parish organist and sending her salary back to the Stella Niagara Franciscans.”
Like Sr. Mary, Sr. RoseMarie wound up for a long time in New Jersey (strangely, this is where I have found myself living as well) where she served as an organist at a parish in Belshaw. By some aberration in the Franciscan Rule, during the high-rolling 1980s Sr. RoseMarie drove a Chrysler New Yorker replete with a car phone and appointed in fine Corinthian leather. She lived in her own personal apartment too. Further, while other Franciscan nuns had jettisoned their traditional habits in favor of hand-me-downs from the Salvation Army, “Sr. RoseMarie dressed like a Greek archbishop,” according to her cousin, the Honorable Louis Villella.
He’s not far off: Sr. RoseMarie designed and sewed her own “habits” which consisted of a turban, a pectoral cross, and a dramatic cape. “She had stand-out style, that’s for certain,” said Aunt Theresa.
And could she ever play the organ! At our nuptial Mass, Sr. RoseMarie pulled out all the stops, literally and figuratively, on the pipe organ at Corpus Christi Church in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey.
Diagnosed with cancer on the very same day her sister Ann Dolores died in 2000, Sr. RoseMarie rallied for a couple of years before succumbing to the disease in 2003. All three sisters, in blood and religion, died within four years of one another.
It is indeed rare to find a family of twelve children these days—rarer still to find one that produces three religious out of that brood. But these three very different women—Sr. Mary the Mystic, Sr. Ann Dolores the Drill Sergeant, and Sr. RoseMarie the Organist—made us not only very proud, but very happy for the many years we were able to share their lives, and their faith.