By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
There was pizza and beer courtesy of Sister of St. Francis Cecil Gabriel DePrisco for everyone in her unit at her congregation’s retirement facility, Assisi House in Aston. And why not? It was her 100th birthday celebration.
For Sister Cecil, life began July 15, 1910, as Maria DePrisco, the fourth among 13 children of Rose and Generoso DePrisco, and only one of five who survived. During her early childhood the family moved from the Italian Market section in Philadelphia further south to Epiphany of Our Lord Parish. That’s where she had most of her elementary education before continuing at John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School.
From an early age she loved the religious sisters and wanted to enter the convent. Several congregations who taught her encouraged her to enter their community, but there was something about the Sisters of St. Francis that appealed to her: their gentleness and quietude. However there was a hitch; her parents were against her entering the convent, and after her graduation from Hallahan at 17, she took a position as a stenographer-typist, dated a bit and bided her time.
She was 19 when she donned the habit despite her parents. As a postulant she was missioned to Our Lady of Consolation Parish in the Tacony section of the city. This was followed by Nativity B.V.M. in Media; Resurrection of Our Lord in Chester; St. Mauritius in Ashland; St. Alphonsus in South Philadelphia; Holy Ghost in Bethlehem; Holy Angels in Trenton, N.J.; St. Stanislaus in Lansdale; Immaculate Conception in Marcus Hook; back to Our Lady of Consolation; St. Benedict in Philadelphia; St. Maria Goretti High School in South Philadelphia; and, finally, retirement about 20 years ago.
Her parents came around to her point of view eventually, and at her 25th anniversary as a sister her dad got up and gave a fine speech. She recalls him telling everyone how proud he was of her, and how he wished his other daughters had entered too, so he wouldn’t have to worry about them.
In spite of her more than eight decades in the convent, she has become the matriarch for her large and loving extended Italian family, many of whom attended her birthday party.
If you counted the list of her schools, it comes out to 11. Did she enjoy the classroom?
“I really wasn’t crazy about teaching,” she confessed with the refreshing candor that comes with old age. However, much of her career was spent as a principal, and that appealed to her more.
Msgr. Ralph Chieffo, who celebrated her 100th birthday Mass, remembers her fondly as his seventh- and eighth-grade teacher and principal at the same time at Immaculate Conception School in Marcus Hook.
“She was feisty, loving, full of faith and vibrancy,” Msgr. Chieffo said. At her birthday Mass he spoke of the three bones she gave the students: a backbone of faith, a wishbone to stay close to God, faith and family and a funny bone. “She was strict and disciplined,” he said. “But she liked to laugh.”
In retirement Sister Cecil has stayed remarkably active in spite of her years. Until fairly recently she helped with cooking and other little tasks, and even now she cares for herself, makes her own bed and does little things to assist sisters who are incapacitated.
Her prayer life remains true to the saints of her youth, St. Anthony and St. Ann in particular, and even more so to the Blessed Mother and the Sacred Heart. She prays the rosary daily, preferring the Franciscan Crown Rosary, which has seven decades – five of the traditional Mysteries of the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Finding of the Child Jesus and the Assumption, adding the Adoration of the Magi and the Appearance of Jesus to Mary after the Resurrection.
And yes, “I am still happy, definitely happy. I belong here,” she said.
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.