By Lois Rogers | Features Editor
Sister of Charity of St. Elizabeth Carmela Marie Cristiano, 83, whose deep faith led her to embrace a wide spectrum of social justice causes around the state died Aug. 1 in Capital Health System-Fuld Hospital, Trenton.
Sister Carmela, who spent many years as an educator before embarking on a ground breaking ministry in social services, entered the Sisters of Charity on March 25 – Palm Sunday – 1945 and served the order for 66 years.
Born in New York City, N.Y., the daughter of Francis and Mary (Canonica) Cristiano, she graduated from the College of Saint Elizabeth, Convent Station, with a Bachelor of Science degree in education and began her years of service teaching in Catholic schools around the state.
Among the schools she taught at were: Our Lady of Sorrows, South Orange; St. Rose of Lima, Newark; Star of the Sea Academy, Long Branch; Sacred Heart School and St. Peter Elementary School, New Brunswick and Epiphany School, Cliffside Park.
In 1967, she took her first steps toward public ministry, becoming the first Catholic sister to head a group work program with a North Jersey YWCA. That move set the stage for a remarkable series of events that would see her help countless people of all generations.
By 1968, Sister Carmela was immersed in social work at the Hudson County Emergency Shelter in Jersey City. Her observant and curious nature led her to uncover a serious misappropriation of funds at the facility.
The discovery sparked the infamous trial of the “Hudson Eight” in 1970 which landed several top Jersey City officials in jail. “I was too young and dumb to be frightened,” Sister Carmela would tell the Philadelphia Inquirer decades later. “But actually, I was in the same peril as many whistle blowers are and, I’d do it all again.”
Her advocacy brought her to the media forefront in North Jersey and led to her serious consideration as a candidate for public office. Nominated for the Hudson County Board of Freeholders and the state Assembly, she declined all efforts to draft her and continued in her advocacy efforts.
The same nature would lead her to recognize lack of affordable childcare as a key factor in the cycle of American poverty. She was outspoken in support of children’s causes, lobbying President Regan for childcare centers and establishing a corporation herself that created 18 childcare centers in the 1970s and 1980s in Hudson, Bergen, Middlesex and Burlington Counties.
During these years, she also developed a sharp business acumen that led to her election as the state president of the New Jersey Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, an organization she remained active in up to the time of her death.
In later years, she focused on homelessness. The issue would become the cornerstone of her long and fruitful semi-retirement in Pemberton Township where the day-care corporation she founded purchased what was envisioned as a retirement home for her.
Never one to rest on her laurels, she soon began welcoming underprivileged children from North Jersey to spend their summers in the spacious home in the Country Lakes section. By 1988, the retirement home had become a transitional shelter known as “My Mother’s House,” named for the Virgin Mary, where homeless could regroup, recoup and find work.
Here again, her bold faith stepped in. She simply called on one of the wealthiest men in the world for help and he responded. “I realized that Atlantic City was a place where there were jobs, so I contacted the Trump Organization,” she said in an earlier interview. “I met with Donald Trump.” His organization became the first of five casinos to hire her candidates.
Throughout her long journey of faith, she received many honors including the first-ever Garden State Humanitarian Award in 1987 from Gov. Thomas H. Kean. Gov. Brendan Byrne appointed her one of the first members of the New Jersey commission on the Status of Women, she was reappointed by Gov. Kean.
And, she made many friends, two of whom were Marion Ariemma and Donna McArdle.
Ariemma, who founded the parish nursing program in St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Whiting, where Cristiano worshipped throughout her retirement, remembered her as “someone who has done so much to help others.”
The two women had co-created the “Body and Soul Club” for senior citizens at the parish and enjoyed the weekly meetings where the 20 or so members shared memories, experiences and talked about the meaning that faith gave their lives.
“We just worked well together,” Ariemma said. “We were very compatible spiritually. What I didn’t have, she had, and we developed a closeness. It was a pleasure to work with her and get her spiritually out in the open.”
A trustee, board member or volunteer for many organizations from Soroptimists International to Amici Della Lingua, a South Jersey language and cultural arts club, she had a special place in her heart for Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Pemberton Township and never failed to talk up its accomplishments at small gatherings or large groups, said Donna McArdle.
McArdle, a spokesperson for the Deborah Hospital Foundation, spoke of Sister Carmela’s boundless energy and sense of dedication. “I knew her for a long time and whenever she took on a cause, she embraced it fully,” McArdle said.
Sister Carmela had indeed embraced Deborah, known nation-wide for its philanthropic approach to heart care. “She was a member of the Bohlen-Mount Holly Chapter of the Deborah Foundation and she put all of her energies into it. She was at every event, raising awareness and sharing her deep faith,” McArdle added.
All things considered, it seemed apt for Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Donna M. Watson to reflect that “Sister Carmela was not your ordinary nun.
“She was simply unforgettable,” said Sister Donna, diocesan delegate for consecrated life. “Her smile and her laughter were infectious. Sister took the charism of the Sisters of Charity and ran with it in everything she did, throughout her life. And she did make a difference…She was a champion for all social causes and she was always concerned about the dignity and well-being of the human person.”
Aside from her parents, Sister Carmela was preceded in death by her brother, Vito Cristiano. She is survived by the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth; four sisters, Carmela Stang, Newbury, N.Y.; Francine Von Dreusche, Forked River; Rosemaria Myrah, Manahawkin; Margaret Cristiano, Concord, Mass.; and one brother, Joseph Cristiano, Orleans, Neb. She is also survived by many nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews.
A Mass of Christian Burial was to be held Aug. 4 in St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, Whiting with burial scheduled for 10:30 a.m., Aug. 5 in Holy Family Cemetery, Convent Station.
Contributions may be made in her name to the Sisters of Charity Development Fund, P.O. Box 476, Convent Station, NJ, 07961-0476
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