Sr. Mary Cecile: Marking 110 years

When 6-year-old Antoinette Marie Amore arrived in Bridgeport early in the 20th Century, she hardly could have imagined the long, full life that lay ahead of her.

On Tuesday, Feb. 17, there will be a gala party at Villa Notre Dame on Belden Hill Road as she celebrates her 110th birthday. A member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, living at the Lourdes Health Care Center adjacent to the villa, she is the oldest member of her congregation in the world.

Sr. Cecile greeted a visitor last week with a smile and when asked how she was, she answered with a chuckle, “I am an old lady!”

Sr. Cecile was born in 1905 in Pietracatella, Italy, a small hill town in the province of Campobasso in central/southern Italy, just north of the heel of the “boot.” It is a small town with a population of about 1,600, about half the number of people who lived there when Sr. Cecile was born.

That same year, the Trans-Siberian Railway opened, Rotary International was founded, Theodore Roosevelt was U.S. president, Mata Hari performed in Paris, and Albert Einstein formulated his theory of “special relativity.” Sr. Cecile shares a birth year with French couturier Christian Dior, The Sound of Music’s Maria von Trapp, author Ayn Rand, existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, actress Greta Garbo, and millionaire Howard Hughes.

When she was just 2 months old, Antoinette’s father left the town’s narrow, sun-baked streets for America, eventually settling in Bridgeport. About six years later he sent for his wife and daughter.

Antoinette arrived in the United States in October 1911 and attended public school until the eighth grade. She also attended Holy Rosary Church, where she received the sacraments. Her religious instruction was through the Sisters of Mercy.

Difficult economic circumstances forced her to leave school to go to work. The thing she most wanted to do during this time, she has said, was study music.

Michele Santos, activities director at Lourdes, said Sr. Cecile told her that when she was 17 she became seriously ill and her mother promised her, if she got well, she could take music lessons.

Antoinette did recover and began piano lessons with the School Sisters, whose convent was a short walk from her home.

In a brief autobiography she wrote at the time she took her vows, the young woman said, “The day I made inquiry about music lessons was the first day I had ever seen of our Sisters. The time and date having been settled for my first lesson, I went home very happy. After taking lessons for two years I began to feel the desire to become a religious, and each day the desire seemed to grow stronger.”

In the spring of 1924, at the age 19, Antoinette gained her parents’ consent and “received the Bonnet” on Dec. 8 of that year, the Catholic holy day marking the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

During the previous two years, Antoinette had been studying piano earnestly, and when she entered the novitiate she was given the name Mary Cecile, after St. Cecilia, who is the patron saint of music.

Sr. Cecile took her first vows in 1928 and during her religious life resumed her studies, eventually earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. As a School Sister she taught music “to countless students” and served her order at schools in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey before returning to her hometown of Bridgeport in 1946, where she stayed. In addition to being a music teacher — she taught piano, violin and voice — she was an excellent cook and seamstress.

Sr. Cecile moved to Villa Notre Dame in 2000 and was able to live independently there until 2010, when she moved to the health center at age 105.

Although she is small and appears frail, Sr. Cecile gets around the health center with a walker and enjoys playing dominoes. Conversation is difficult because she is very hard of hearing and refuses to wear a hearing aid, Ms. Santos said.

Still, she participates in activities, said Ms. Santos, who will move right up to Sr. Cecile’s ear to talk with her. Sr. Cecile can also read a written question or remark and respond to it.

The elderly nun reads poetry and enjoys getting her hair done. Her favorite colors are blue and white. On a recent day she was decked out in blue.

“She’s feisty but sweet,” Ms. Santos said of Sr. Cecile, perhaps alluding to the secret of her longevity. “What she doesn’t want she will tell you,” she said, adding definitively, “She’s a joy.”