March 29, 2006

Sister Margaret Smyth Honored

Guests gathered on Saturday afternoon at the Three Village Inn in Stony Brook were a portrait in diversity. Elected officials and working-class immigrants, nuns and educators, men and women, young and old, traveled for miles by car, train, and bus from bustling cities and bucolic villages to the event. But despite the disparity of their circumstances, the guests at the annual awards banquet of the Suffolk County New York Civil Liberties Union were united by a common denominator. Each of their lives has been touched forever by a woman whose name is synonymous with her selfless dedication and tireless crusade for justice — Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate.

Members of the Latino community spoke in Spanish as they lauded their leader, a fearless woman who has fought a lifelong battle for basic freedoms. The room resounded with the sound of laughter, applause, and the musical hum of a melting pot of accents.

Sister Margaret, who received the Justice Award for her lifetime of humanitarian work at the luncheon, said that the sound of diversity has long been music to her ears. 

"I look at accents as a gift," said Smyth, whose mother spoke with a rich brogue.

The shining list of Sister Margaret's good deeds is long. Working out of community outreach offices in Riverhead and Greenport, she provides comprehensive serves addressing the needs of immigrants, both legal and undocumented.

Sister Margaret meets with groups before and after Spanish mass; she is the Latino community's liaison with schools, courts, medical providers, local businesses, and service agencies, and provides immigration, employment, and housing counseling.

Sister Margaret has recently worked to garner a grant that provides for a mobile health van in Riverhead and is also working in collaboration with Catholic Charities and Centro Corazon de Maria to provide identification for community members.

Sister Margaret has searched North Fork beaches and woods, seeking to shelter the homeless.

In Southampton Town, Sister Margaret Smyth has met with officials to discuss providing an alternative to a hiring hall for undocumented workers.

And in Greenport, Smyth is working with Mayor David Kapell on a groundbreaking census that seeks to provide an accurate assessment of everyone living and working in the village, including undocumented workers, in order to ascertain and address their needs.

"Sister Margaret sets a powerful leadership example for the entire community in her commitment to practical and humane treatment of the new Hispanic community on the East End," said Kapell.

Speakers noted that the lives of those immigrants helped by Sister Margaret mirror those of their ancestors. The United States is a country made of immigrants, they reminded.

"My maternal grandparents snuck in through Canada and were undocumented," said Stan Gewanter, president of the NYCLU, Suffolk Chapter.

Born in the Dominican Republic, Suffolk County legislator Vivian Viloria-Fisher said when she was a little girl in the United States, her mother asked her sister to make important phone calls. When looking for an apartment, she said, "You should not be afraid the sound of your voice or the color of your skin will make the apartment unavailable."

Fisher thanked Smyth for her commitment to the "plight of the often overlooked."

"Sister Margaret," said Gewanter, "has walked with angels."

Sister Margaret urged Robert Ralph, also honored at the event, for his struggle for fair and inclusionary housing, to persevere.

"Justice," she said, "is a work in progress."

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