The Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, one of the smaller orders of religious women in Buffalo, live with the charism "love and service to the poor." Ten sisters from the Italian-based order serve in Lewiston. Most teach at Sacred Heart Villa, but one sister offers a ministry of prayer and crafting in Our Lady of Peace Nursing Home. Sister Elena Sinatra, SSHJ, lives with cancer and asthma that keeps her tethered to an oxygen tank. A teacher for 52 years, she now volunteers at the very same nursing home where she lives.
She has died and come back to life five times. "They call me 'Sister Miracle'," Sister Elena said.
"Since she was so sick, and most every day we had to call an ambulance, the doctor told her to go to a nursing home. That's why she's here," explained Sister M. Ambrogia Alderuccio, SSHJ, local superior for the sisters, who volunteers at Our Lady of Peace along with Sister Elena.
From her bed or the chair next to it, Sister Elena prays for families, the sick and the poor. She also makes crafts. She recently created over a dozen silk lilies for Christmas.
"She likes to do her crafts and things like that," said Sister Ambrogia. "She keeps busy."
Both sisters are from Italy and still speak with accents from their homeland. Despite her medical condition and her 82 years on this earth, Sister Elena is sharp enough to recall her first day teaching kindergarten. She had 34 kids in her class, which she took care of by herself with very few of the basic classroom supplies.
"The first year I didn't even have a table and chair, nothing. I called the principal. I said, 'Look at here. What are you going to do? 34!' She took it for granted because no one wrote the registration, so she registered more and more and more. So the first day of school, they all came," Sister Elena recalled. She thought there was a mistake, but when the children came off the bus, they all had "Sister Elena, Kindergarten" written on their nametags.
With the orders' charism in mind, she first tried to teach them to be good to one another, which could be challenging. "They were wild, some of them," she recalled. After being issued their newly-sharpened pencils in the first week of classes, the students proceeded to start a pencil war, throwing their writing tools like missiles at one another. She quickly learned how to discipline the kids, because she was afraid they would get hurt.
Sister Elena first met the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus as a child back in Italy, watching them take care of war orphans.
"When I was little, I saw the sisters. They were charitable," she said. "It was during the war. I entered in 1952 in religious life. I love it. The sisters were so good. Very dedicated, night and day."
Sister Elena wanted to be a missionary. The order has convents in India, Madagascar, the Philippines, Poland, Romania, Canada and the United States. She came to the Diocese of Buffalo in 1965, 10 years after joining the order.
Sister Ambrogia came to the U.S. in 1958, just after professing her final vows, then attended Mount St. Joseph Teacher's College. After graduating, she taught at DeSales High School in Lockport. She now teaches fifth-graders at Sacred Heart Villa.
As a teacher, "you share your knowledge of God with them. You try to straighten them up," she said of her role to her students. "Many of them now are from broken homes, and the parents do not take them to church even though they are Catholic. So, we do stress the religion together with other subjects. When some people are in trouble, we try to help them. We've had children from foster homes, and we welcome them without judging."
In her role of local superior, she takes care of the house, pays the bills, takes the sisters to the doctors, and does the shopping for the house. At 78, she uses a walker. Despite the busy schedules and health concerns, both sisters volunteer at Our Lady of Peace.