Residents thank Sister Thomas for a half-century of service
In the 1970’s, as crime, poverty and fires ravaged the South Bronx, activist nun Sister Thomas could be seen tirelessly pushing a shopping cart up and down the streets of Hunts Point, collecting food and clothing for the poor.
On September 9th, about 200 people gathered in Father Gigante Plaza in front of St. Athanasius Church to honor Sister Thomas and Hunts Point housing pioneer Father Louis Gigante for 50 years of service to the neighborhood. There was barely a moment when Thomas was not being hugged and kissed by local residents.
Father Gigante was unable to make the trip due to bad weather.
When Sister Thomas, now 79, arrived in Hunts Point in 1962, the area was known as Fort Apache, for its high crime rate.
“The buildings and the landlords were outrageous,” she said. “The people had great needs, physically and emotionally. People were afraid to open their doors.”
Angela Centeno, a long-time parishioner and volunteer at St. Athanasius who has known Sister Thomas since her arrival in the neighborhood, calls her “the mother of the South Bronx.”
“I once saw her take off her own coat and give it to a lady who was cold,” said Centeno. “She stood out there in the street with no coat, and said, ‘God’s covering me.’
“People who didn’t have anything to eat, she’d take money out of her pocket and give it to them,” Centeno continued. “If they said, ‘I don’t have clothes,’ she’d find some for them. If you don’t watch her eat her food, she’ll give it to somebody else.”
Sister Thomas became an advocate for Hunts Point’s marginalized residents shortly after she arrived.
“Someone had to speak up for these people who had trouble expressing it themselves,” she said.
After graduating from high school in 1951, Sister Thomas—who grew up as Trudy Collins in Red Hook, Brooklyn—joined the Sisters of Charity. She taught for eight years in Manhattan, then spent a summer learning Spanish in Puerto Rico before the group sent her to teach at St. Athanasius School on Southern Boulevard. She lived in the convent on the top floor of the school, and taught 5th- and 7th- grade, along with 13 other nuns. But by the end of her fifth year, she was the only nun still teaching.
“The area was too intense for them,” she said.
In 1967, Sisters of Charity asked her to stop teaching and instead become a community organizer.
“I called myself a street walker,” she joked, explaining that she walked around the neighborhood every day looking for people who needed help.
She urged residents to take pride in their community through small actions, such as planting flowers in their windows and painting the frames of their front doors, and she encouraged fearful residents to make the streets safer by sitting on their stoops and playing with their children.
But her actions were not always appreciated, she said.
“It took a while for people to realize that we didn’t think we were better than them, that we weren’t getting paid, and that we lived in and amongst the people,” she remembered.
Sister Thomas, who wore a black bonnet and habit until the late 1970s, later became involved at the decision-making level. She served on Community Board 2 for many years, chairing the board and heading several committees. She also directed the Simpson Street Development Association, an anti-poverty organization, for 32 years.
With her tall presence and loud, clear voice, Sister Thomas has never hesitated to fight for what she believes in.
“I can tell people off when they have to be told off,” she said. “People say to me, ‘How come you can tell people to go to Hell and they still love you?’”
When words weren’t enough, she took action. When the MTA wanted to dig in front of St. Athanasius Church to install an air-conditioning system for the subway, Sister Thomas tied herself to a bulldozer to stop them. The city moved the site.
Sister Thomas hasn’t been immune to the violence and crime for which the neighborhood was once notorious. Over the years, she has been held up and robbed numerous times. Once, her wallet was stolen while she tended to a girl injured in a gang fight. Another time, a man tried to stab her in the vestibule of the church, but she protected herself with her pocketbook.
Robbers frequently broke into the convent. On one occasion, they stole her mother’s wedding ring. Another time, she chased a thief who had broken into the building, onto and across the roof, until he escaped by jumping to the roof of an adjacent building.
Lately, health problems have slowed her down. She spent five months in the hospital recovering from open-heart surgery in the spring. But she continues to distribute clothes to the needy while still operating her neighborhood-famous Sunday flea market out of a garage next to St. Athanasius church.
“It’s been a long, exhilarating, sometimes sad, but also joyful experience,” said Sister Thomas, who now lives in the apartment building on Southern Boulevard that bears her name. “There are crooks who you wanted to bop on the head, but so many good, hardworking people.”
“You can’t keep her down,” said Edward Eismann, founder of local counseling organization, Unitas. “She brings enthusiasm and fire. Now who will take the torch?”