Sister Thomas dead at 80

Rachel Bryson-Brockmann

Sister Thomas in Father Gigante Plaza in 2012.

Tough nun fought for Hunts Point’s poor for five decades

Sister Thomas, the nun whose courage helped restore a sense of dignity to Hunts Point and Longwood when they were ravaged by arson and abandonment in the 1970s and ’80s, died on March 20.

Sister Thomas was 80.

Born Trude Collins on August 3, 1933, Sister Thomas grew up in Red Hook, Brooklyn. She attended Catholic primary and high school in Brooklyn and later joined the Sisters of Charity. After the order sent her to teach in Manhattan for eight years, it transferred her to St. Athanasius School on Southern Boulevard in 1962.

Sister Thomas 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.

As crime and arson ravaged the area, residents routinely saw the tall, prepossessing and fearless figure pushing a shopping cart up and down Hunts Point and Longwood streets at all hours of the day to collect food and clothing for the neighborhood’s neediest.

“The buildings and the landlords were outrageous,” she recalled in an interview with The Express in September, 2012. “The people had great needs, physically and emotionally. People were afraid to open their doors.”

In 1967, the 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 rebuild their ravaged community through small acts. She encouraged them to plant flowers in their windows, paint the frames of their front doors, and to make the streets safer by sitting on their stoops and playing with their children.

Josephine Infante, president of the Hunts Point Economic Development Corporation and Sister Thomas’ close friend, said Sister Thomas was the reason she came to the neighborhood in 1982.

“She was my mentor,” said Infante, who partnered with her in numerous grassroots campaigns, leading marches and walks along Southern Boulevard to get drug dealers off the streets and help imbue residents with a sense of pride in their neighborhood.

“No one took her lightly,” said Infante, but added that Sister Thomas was also “childlike. She had a sense of humor that was wild.”

Officer Aida Haddock, a 23-year-year veteran of the 41st Precinct on Longwood Avenue, recalled that Sister Thomas “always had a song for you.” One of her most commonly sung jingles was the pop hit “I just called to say I love you.”

“She was very old-fashioned,” said Haddock, whose son was confirmed by Sister Thomas. “She was famous for sending everyone ‘thank you’ cards.”

Infante recalled that “the community was completely destroyed” when she arrived, but Sister Thomas’ unyielding efforts to  spearhead affordable housing developments for low-income residents were the catalyst for turning Hunts Point around.

Along with her battles for residents through the church and grassroots campaigns, Sister Thomas chaired Community Board 2 for several years and headed several committees,. She also served on and directed the Simpson Street Development Association for 32 years.

Marta Rivera, director of programs at Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education and a lifetime resident, remembered Sister Thomas as a unifying force during the neighborhood’s darkest days.

“She was like a motivational speaker for the people who never left the community,” Rivera said, recalling that she first heard her speak at a community meeting on Simpson Street in the 1960s.

“She was urging the community to stick together,” said Rivera.

But the most important lesson Rivera said she learned from the nun she called her mentor was patience.

“Even when she was in a hurry, she would just stop and listen when people wanted to talk,” she remembered. “Some people just need a minute of your time.”

Athough health problems slowed her down in recent years, she continued to distribute clothes to the needy while operating a Sunday flea market out of a garage next to St. Athanasius Church.

In the summer of 2010, parishioners and other supporters rallied to her defense when a rift formed between her and the church. About 100 gathered in Father Gigante Plaza in front of St. Athanasius in August of that year in protest after the new pastor closed the flea market and threw out clothing, furniture and other household goods Sister Thomas had stored in the church garage to sell cheap to needy residents.

“The corporeal works of mercy are just as important as the spiritual acts of mercy,” Sister Thomas said at the time. “Even though it’s a religious institution, we have to think of the needy.”

Later that year she was honored as a neighborhood pioneer at the annual New South Bronx Halloween Parade, which she had helped found 25 years earlier.

Sister Thomas died at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Yonkers of natural causes. She is survived by a niece, Trude Vitarelli, and a nephew, Thomas Collins, and by her sister-in-law.

A wake will be held at the Convent of Mary the Queen, 75 Vark Avenue, Yonkers, NY, on Saturday, March 22nd between 2 and 8 p.m. There will be a prayer vigil at 6:30 p.m.

Sister Thomas will then be transferred to St. Athanasius Church, 878 Tiffany St. on Sunday, March 23, where a wake will be  held from 3-8 p.m. with a prayer vigil scheduled for 5:30 pm.

Funeral Mass will be held at St. Athanasius on Monday, March 24, at 10:30 am. She will be laid to rest at St. Joseph Cemetery in Yonkers.

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