Sister Ann Britto’s Christmas luncheon for seniors at Manteca’s St. Anthony’s Catholic Church was business as usual for the diminutive, high-energy nun.
She was greeting guests, keeping the band on schedule, introducing special visitors, including Bishop Myron Cotta, Bishop Emeritus Stephen Blaire, leading the singing of “The 12 Days of Christmas” and raffling off prizes.
What she didn’t do was eat.
“I never eat at these lunches,” she said.
Nor did she cry, hard as that might have been for her.
Thursday’s luncheon was the last for the nun who arrived in the diocese in 1976 to join other members of the Daughters of the Cross at Tracy’s St. Bernard’s School.
Sister Ann, Sister Marlene Sylas and Sister Cecilia De Mello, the last three members of the order in the Stockton Diocese, are leaving by June to continue their service in England or Ireland.
The Daughters of the Cross arrived in Tracy in 1958 to start St. Bernard's School. Later they would establish houses in Stockton and Angels Camp, but the numbers dwindled until only the three remain.
The Tracy house is part of the order’s English Province, and with only 50 nuns in the British Isles, the three are needed there.
“They said they would give us five or six years, but it was all of a sudden,” Sister Cecilia said.
“It’s very sad, because I really love it here. I love what I do,” said Sister Marlene, who has been minister of the sick and homebound at St. Bernard’s since 1997. “We didn’t expect we were going to be moved so fast. That’s religious life. When the Lord calls, you have to go.”
Sister Cecilia moved to Tracy in 2009 to lead the funeral ministry. Her assignment came after she’d spent 16 years away from the order. She’d served as a nun for 24 years, but left to support her mother, working a variety of jobs in New York, including nursing. After her mother died, she returned to the Daughters of the Cross. She’d become an American citizen and wanted to stay, and the only house was in Tracy.
All three nuns were born in India, and all chose their vocation after visiting orphanages run by the Daughters of the Cross.
Sister Ann, 74, used to visit St. Catherine’s Orphanage in Mumbai, where she grew up.
“My mother used to take us there and make clothes for them and I loved to go and dress the babies and carry them,” Ann said.
Cecilia, 65, who grew up on the island of Goa off Mumbai with her Portuguese father and Indian mother, also found her way to St. Catherine’s and fell in love with the babies there. She became a nun over the objection of her father, who never forgave the local convent for not taking in his children to protect them during a period of unrest on the island between the Portuguese and Indians.
On the other side of the country in Calcutta, Marlene discovered the babies the Daughters of the Cross cared for there.
“I was kind of spoiled by my dad. I was very self-centered and vain until I saw our orphanage, St. Margaret’s Hall, when I was 15,” Marlene, 71, said. “That’s when the sister there said orphans need a double portion of love. I just felt so taken by that that I said I couldn’t imagine children not having parents. For the first time, I thought I’d like to be like (that sister) and love these children.”
She ran an orphanage in India for a time and after enduring political upheaval in the region, was sent to Gonzaga University on a sabbatical, where she studied theology. Marlene, who will celebrate her 50th anniversary as a nun a year from now, came to Tracy from Washington.
Inspired by orphans to become nuns, none of the three works with children now.
Sister Ann, who has been in the diocese 42 years, spent most of her time with children, however, including 17 years teaching kindergarten at St. George’s.
“She was very strict, but she had to be because we were a tough crowd,” said Philly Rilcopiro, who was in that first class in 1985. “She was the first person that taught us to know God, to pray. We were reading in kindergarten by the fourth or fifth month, learning shapes, colors, numbers, all of that.”
Philly’s mom, Lolita Ricopiro, a nurse who worked the night shift at San Joaquin General Hospital, volunteered in the classroom one day at her daughter’s urging.
She never left. She has helped Sister Ann since, and the two are like sisters.
At the first parent-teacher conference in 1985, Sister Ann asked Lolita Rilcopiro why she sat in the back of the church and not in front with Philly. Lolita told her it was because she couldn’t take communion as she had married in Reno and the church didn’t recognize her marriage. Sister Ann arranged for the marriage to be blessed by the church.
“I told sister, ‘ I never cried in my whole life, but once I heard you were leaving, I don’t have any more tears left to cry. What am I going to do?’” Lolita said.
Many of the seniors she ministered may feel the same way.
“All these people have a place to go every month for a party,” Bishop Blaire said as he was leaving Thursday’s luncheon. “It may seem simple, but where else could these people go?”
The luncheon was the first for Bishop Cotta, who became the leader of the Stockton Diocese in March.
He is saddened by the impending departure of Sister Ann and the others.
“There’s going to be a sense of emptiness, because they did so much to integrate and bring Christ’s presence to the community,” Bishop Cotta said.
The significance of Sister Ann’s presence in the St. Anthony’s community was evident by the presence of 300 enjoying a lunch sponsored by Brookdale Senior Living.
“We love her to pieces,” St. Anthony’s pastor Father Chad Wahl said. “She is a real spirit of joy in the parish. She can make any meeting a riot with the right joke at the right time. Besides being a hard worker, she’d done so much for the church.”
In addition to her senior parties, she visited homebound seniors and those with special needs and prisoners at Deuel Vocational Institution. She helped with unwed mothers in Manteca and held an annual Christmas-time baby shower for Jesus, with gifts donated to the Manteca Pregnancy Center.
No one person will take Sister Ann’s place, Father Wahl said, but Deacon Jeff Vierra will become the minster of caring, having given up a secular job to begin full time at St. Anthony’s last Monday.
“I’ve been following her around taking copious notes,” Vierra said Thursday. “There are a lot of hearts broken, including mine, and a lot of people are going to miss her. She’s had a major influence on a lot of people’s lives. She’s a tough act to follow.”
The lunches will go on, he promises.
There’s more to Sister Ann’s legacy than that, though.
“I think it’s her immense faith and her immense work ethic,” Vierra said. “She’s an amazing, faithful woman. I don’t think I take one thing from her, but want to become a better person in following her lead.”
Contact reporter Lori Gilbert at (209) 546-8284 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @lorigrecord.