After 77 years in religious service, Sister Marie Innocentia Lipari of the Parish of St. Paul and St. Agnes is retiring at the age of 96. Father Joseph Nugent, pastor, calls the much beloved Sr. Innocentia’s retirement a “big loss” to the parish. Born Madeline Lipari and baptized Maria Magdalena in 1922, she was raised on First Place in Carroll Gardens with her five sisters and two brothers by loving parents who had immigrated from Sicily and Naples.
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Her family worshiped at St. Stephen’s Church long before its merger with Sacred Hearts Parish. Young Madeline often went to daily Mass at St. Stephen’s before going to school at P.S. 142. St. Stephen’s pastor at the time, Father Edward Lodge Curran, was particularly inspiring in that he often walked with the children of the parish, known as the Children of Mary, preaching the gospel of the day out on the streets of the neighborhood. She was also influenced by Sr. Amadeus, a caring nun from the community she would eventually join, who asked Madeline for her help with a summer school program. Madeline, however, was sickly as a child and suffered from diphtheria, missing an entire year of school. Before saying yes to Sr. Amadeus, she had to convince her mother that she was well enough for the job.
Another influence in her early years was Mother Cabrini, to whom Madeline was strongly devoted; instead of going to the movies with her friends, she would often make the long journey on the subway to upper Manhattan to the Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini.
By the time she was seventeen, Madeline already had the calling and decided to enter the convent. But her older sister, Margaret, had chosen the same vocation at the same time. Thanks to the advice of her spiritual advisor and fellow parishioner, John Jay Gorman, Madeline waited one year and entered the Community of the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity (MSBT) in Philadelphia in 1941. She made her first profession in March 1943 and took her final vows in March 1946, thus becoming Sister Marie Innocentia of the Child Jesus, MSBT.
A certified social worker, Sr. Innocentia immediately embarked on an illustrious and versatile vocational career in missionary social work, with assignments in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Alabama, and then back to her native Brooklyn, to St. Peter/Our Lady of Pilar Parish in Cobble Hill in the late 1950s. St. Peter/Our Lady of Pilar eventually merged with St. Paul’s Parish which ultimately merged with St. Agnes Church. Her duties included ministering to Latino parishioners; teaching First Communion and Confirmation classes (as well as religious instruction classes to teenagers); home visiting; assisting with housing programs, agency referrals for unmarried mothers, drug users, and welfare recipients; and assisting the parish priests. Additionally, Sr. served as parish liaison to the Community Poverty Program, was involved in the administration of the CYO Youth Jobs Corps, St. Vincent de Paul Society funds, and the Summertime Poverty Program for parish children. She also coordinated ESL classes with the Board of Education, tutorial work for newcomers, emergency assistance to the needy, and a ministry of prayer at Cobble Hill Nursing Home.
During summer months, Sr. would chaperone dozens of neighborhood children to Coney Island to the amazement of strangers. (She proudly notes that she never lost a single child.) In recent years, Sr. was well known for her annual novenas to St. Anthony of Padua, which spanned thirteen weeks culminating on his feast day on June 13th.
On Sunday, August 12th, a liturgy and potluck reception were held in St. Paul’s Hall to honor Sr. Innocentia. Regarding her retirement, Sr. said to those gathered, “I have to walk with God, and you will be with me in that walking.” In reaction to the many parishioners and neighbors crowding around, wishing her well and trying to convey what she means to them, Sr. marveled, “Look at how they love me!”
At the reception, Deacon Leroy Branch declared that Sr. Innocentia is “the epitome of service, for the clergy and for everyone else,” and credited her with his becoming a lay deacon. He recalled arriving late for weekly Mass at St. Paul’s when he was growing up and trying to sit discreetly in the back. Sr. would immediately move him up to the front, better to keep a closer eye on him. Deacon Leroy went on to say that Sr. helped everyone, even in surrounding parishes and neighborhoods, and that his best memory of her was that “no matter what your family needed, whatever it was, food or clothes,” Sr. had an uncanny way of finding out what it was and she would invariably hand a bag to you with the simple instruction of “Bring this to mother.” Indeed, as soon as items were donated, Sr. would find the person(s) most in need to receive them.
With the consent of her order’s superior, Sr. has had the privilege to live independently for decades in a studio apartment right next door to St. Paul’s rectory. Living by herself for those many years, she sometimes encountered loneliness: “In my loneliness,” she poignantly noted, “every time I put the key in the door, I found Jesus waiting there. Without God’s presence, I wouldn’t have been able to make it.” Recently Sr. was called to return to her order’s Motherhouse in Philadelphia where she will be cared for by her fellow sisters. Sr. Innocentia was less than enthusiastic of the idea of moving from the place where she had done “all her good works” but according to her dear, devoted friend, Joan Melone, she is now looking forward to it with “a good heart.” And so on the Feast of the Assumption, on August 15th, after a final morning blessing, Sr. moved to the MSBT Motherhouse where her only job will be to pray. There’s no doubt that she will be up to the task.
I was so happy to sit down with Sr. and so moved to be in her presence. In speaking with her and discovering the scope of her vocation, I couldn’t help being reminded of Mother Cabrini. This neighborhood was so blessed to have had Mother Cabrini to help the early Italian immigrants, and we were also blessed to have had another wonderfully devoted sister to follow that very same path.
At the end of our conversation, Sr. said, “I did okay.” Well, Sr. Innocentia, you did a lot better than okay, and I am sure that the thousands of people who benefited from your lifetime of doing the Lord’s work can attest to that. They, as well as I, are better to have known you.