Mercy bond born in kindergarten class: Former pupil cares for 103-year-old jubilarian 

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By Catherine Walsh, Senior Writer 

Sister Mary DePazzi Socha recently celebrated a remarkable milestone: her 103rd birthday. Not long after, she and her former kindergarten student Sister Maureen Jessnik, 77, sit down to talk about their friendship, which began in 1952 at the former St. Agatha’s School in Brooklyn, New York. 

“You were the first Sister of Mercy I ever met. You were so kind,” says the younger woman.  

Her former teacher responds with a laugh: “You were so cute and eager to learn.”  

These friends are connected in countless ways. Each is celebrating a special jubilee anniversary in religious life this year along with dozens of others. Sister DePazzi is an 85-year Jubilarian and the oldest woman in the Community to mark the milestone, and Sister Maureen is a 60-year Jubilarian. 

They love to talk about their lives as Sisters of Mercy, especially now that their roles are reversed. Today the younger woman cares for her former teacher. They live just a few miles apart, and staff at the skilled-care center know they can call Sister Maureen at any time. “It feels like happenstance that I’m able to connect with her in this deeper way,” says Sister Maureen. “It’s a great gift.” 

As the women visit in Sister DePazzi’s room, they are surrounded by artwork she painted of ponds, fields, birds and a dog. A photo of the elder sister’s mother as a teenager – taken in the 1890s – hangs on the wall. “I look just like her,” she says smiling.  

Sister DePazzi is having a good day today, the challenges of inhabiting a century-old body temporarily at bay. She attended a birthday party the previous day for the nursing home’s eight centenarians; her spirits are still high and her hair coiffed. When asked why she became a Catholic sister, she muses about her calling. “Growing up, the teachers I had were Sisters of Mercy. They were all very lovely.” 

Florence Socha, who later became Sister DePazzi, poses for her First Holy Communion Day portrait, May 28, 1928.

Born on March 15, 1921, Sister DePazzi was the eighth of 11 children. She was named Florence by her parents. Her dad worked in a brewery while her mother took care of the family, and the church was the center of their lives. Florence entered the Sisters of Mercy in 1939 in Syosset, New York, taking the name DePazzi after a 16th century Italian Carmelite nun and mystic. She ministered as a teacher and librarian before retiring in 1991 to a ministry of prayer and being present to others, who cherish her notes and joyfulness. She grew vegetables for her community until gardening became arduous.   

Kindergarten class portrait, October 1952. Young Maureen Jessnik is in the third row, third from the left.

“(Your) mother’s ability to deal with kids rubbed off,” says Sister Maureen with a laugh as she reminisces about that long-ago kindergarten classroom. “You made learning fun. You were clear about your expectations. You had a routine and it was calming, and everybody felt comfortable and safe.” 

The former teacher remembers those days fondly. “The best class that I had was when Maureen Jessnik was one of my students.”  

She also has happy memories of watching her students climb through the classroom window to go to recess – the room was on the ground floor – and climbing an indoor jungle gym. “It was joy for them,” she laughs. And then there was the kindergartner whose father had taught her to read the newspaper – a feat that so impressed her teacher that she asked the girl to read aloud to the principal.  

Sister Maureen Jessnik is a high school teacher in this 1975 photo.  

Reflects Sister Maureen, “She taught us life lessons: How to take turns and raise your hand, how to be kind, how to clean up and put your things away, how to do your best, how to rest. She modeled these things. She taught us to pray. She gave us a good, humane Mercy education and we thrived because of it.” 

Having Mercy teachers inspired Sister Maureen’s own call to religious life and a teaching ministry. She entered the community in 1964, also in Syosset, and taught youngsters before finding her way to adult education and pastoral ministry. In recent years, she has served the Mercy community, tending to sisters who taught her and shaped her life.   

“We have a wonderful tradition in Mercy of caring for our elderly sisters,” she says, and those intergenerational connections are one of the community’s hallmarks. “Being a Sister of Mercy is all about relationships and paying attention to anyone in need. It’s a joy to step into this stream of Mercy, of those who have come before you and those who will come after you, doing God’s work. It’s a blessing.”  

On Mercy Day, September 24, Sisters DePazzi and Maureen will celebrate their jubilees in the Syosset, New York, convent chapel where they entered and made vows. They will celebrate with sisters worldwide that the “Circle of Mercy is timeless,” in the words of a beloved song. May God bless them abundantly! 

Sisters DePazzi Socha and Maureen Jessnik pose in front of the elder sister’s artwork on April 19, 2024.