By Mary Stadnyk | News Editor
Sister Esther Del Duca, a member of the Religious Teachers Filippini for 78 years, a former educator in the Trenton Diocese and the first native-born American elected to serve as general superior of the Religious Teachers Filippini in Rome, died Nov. 28 in St. Joseph Hall at Villa Walsh, Morristown. She was 96.
A Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated Dec. 2 in Villa Walsh, Morristown, by her nephew, Father John Del Duca, a senior priest living in residence in Our Lady of Hope Parish, Blackwood. Burial was in Ave Maria Cemetery.
“Sister Esther was a deeply respected Religious Teacher for her integrity, devotion and selfless dedication to our religious family,” said Filippini Sister Betty Jean Takacs, the community’s current provincial superior.
“She was an example of true consecration, who lived and witnessed the spirit of our founders to the full. Sister Esther Del Duca was a pillar of our institute.”
Sister Esther was born in Camden, which at the time was part of the Diocese of Trenton. She entered the Religious Teachers Filippini Feb. 27, 1933; received the religious habit July 8, 1934, and made her religious profession July 4, 1937.
Sister Esther earned a bachelor of science degree in art with a minor in elementary education form Teachers College, Columbia University, N.Y., and a master’s degree in elementary education with a minor in child study from The
Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. She ministered in schools in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
In the Trenton Diocese, she taught in Villa Victoria Academy, Ewing, from 1936-1939, and was the school’s treasurer from 1977-1982. She also served as a teacher and principal in St. Joachim School, Trenton, from 1957-1962, and was also the superior of the parish convent which was staffed by members of the Religious Teachers Filippini.
In 1966, Sister Esther was elected the first native-born American to serve as general superior of the Religious Teachers Filippini, a position in which she had jurisdiction over six provinces – three in Italy and three in the United States, along with foundations in Brazil, Canada, England, Ireland and Switzerland.
As general superior, she convoked a special chapter to update the rules and constitution of the institute in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. Among the highlights of her tenure as general superior was accompanying the first group of sisters to Adigrat, Ethiopia, to open a mission in 1969.
When her term as general superior ended in 1972, Sister Esther ministered in Brazil for three years. In 1975, she returned to the United States to serve as principal of two New Jersey schools before heading to her second assignment at Villa Victoria Academy as the office of treasurer.
In 1982, Sister Esther was appointed to serve a six-year term as general councillor in Rome. Five years later, she and a group of sisters were assigned to help establish a Filippini presence in India. Other positions she held included superior at Mother of the Church, Newport, County Mayo, Ireland, and then spending two years at the Convent of St. Lucy, Medstead, England, assisting wherever she was needed.
In 1996, she returned to the United States to serve as an archival assistant and formation team member. She retired to St. Joseph Villa in 2009.
Among those who shared recollections of Sister Esther was Father Jeffrey E. Lee, a native son of St. Joachim Parish and a 1978 graduate of the parish grammar school.
“Sister Esther was a central figure in the community of Chambersburg when St. Joachim School was at its peak enrollment,” said Father Lee, now pastor of Our Lady of the Angels Parish, Trenton, which was created in 2008 from the merger of St. Joachim Parish with Immaculate Conception Parish.
While Sister Esther was responsible for the tremendous expansion of the school facilities, which included the purchase and renovation of row homes near the parish to provide classroom space and needed recreational space, Father Lee said that most importantly, Sister Esther was instrumental in helping to further develop the school curriculum “to insure the best possible education for the children and grandchildren of (Italian) immigrants.”
Father Lee smiled as he spoke of his many years of knowing Sister Esther. As a St. Joachim School student, he remembered Sister Esther as being a woman with an “impeccable” appearance and had a tone of speech that was “very deliberate and composed.”
Now as an adult, a priest ordained more than 19 years and as a pastor, he acknowledged Sister Esther as a “matriarch of sort.”
“Like the ‘Filippini giants’ who preceded her, Sister Esther rose up from the grassroots,” said Father Lee. “She possessed a rare charism most likely born of her vocation as a daughter of St. Lucy Filippini.”
“The Church in New Jersey has lost one of her best,” said Father Lee, “yet the legacy lives on in the many who have been inspired by her life and nurtured through her teaching.”
Sister Esther was predeceased by her parents, Domenico and Antonietta Di Ielsi; two sisters and three brothers. In addition to her nephew, Father Del Duca, Sister Esther is survived by other nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews.
Memorial donations may be made to St. Joseph Hall Infirmary, c/o Sister Betty Jean Takacs, MPF, Provincial Superior, Villa Walsh, 455 Western Ave., Morristown, N.J. 07960-4928.