The following is from the Winter 2022 issue of VISION.
by Elena Miranda
“I left my island of the Bahamas at the age of 19 and traveled to New York. This little young girl came to New York without the slightest idea of what this was, what I was going to meet here,” recalls Sr. Andrea. “I liked the way the sisters worked together. Something about the life made me want to know, to explore this; something about the feeling that I got from their working together.”
When she entered in 1963, Sr. Andrea was the second Bahamian to join the Congregation and the fifth black woman in the Community. She was educated by the Sisters of Charity in Nassau, where she lived across the street from Our Lady Church and School. As an elementary and high school student, young Andrea enjoyed spending extra time at school to help the sisters at fund raising events or deliver food and clothing in her neighborhood. She laughs when she recalls her mother saying, “I don’t know why you’re hanging around with nuns.”
Neighbors caring for each other was typical in her Bahamian community, but young Andrea was intrigued by the sisters who came to her country to help and serve her people. She began contemplating life as a Sister of Charity at the age of 16 when a sister-friend encouraged her to consider the possibility. Thinking back on her decision, she said, “The desire to serve with a group of women who appeared to have a good community spirit—that seems to have been my motivation.”
Sr. Joan Burbage, who taught Sr. Andrea in high school, remembers her as “a great kid.” She still marvels at how, as a teenager, she was able to leave her home and family and assume a new life in New York. “I thought she was tremendously courageous,” said Sr. Joan.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from the College of Mount Saint Vincent, Sr. Andrea applied for and accepted a first-grade teaching assignment at St. Paul School in East Harlem. “I remember sitting and thinking and looking at these little kids. They were mostly Hispanic, spoke Spanish, and a couple of black kids,” she said. “And I remember just looking out at them; it was my class, my kids, and wondering, ‘What have I done?’”
Being a schoolteacher suddenly seemed daunting and overwhelming, but Sr. Andrea grew into the role and enjoyed teaching her first graders how to read and learn. She later earned a master’s degree at Bank Street, a progressive educational institution in New York City specializing in early childhood development that focused on the whole child, including their culture, language, and individual abilities. Her dedication and care for her students led to lifelong connections that she continues to enjoy today.
Sr. Andrea began visiting families after school—and sometimes in the morning before school—to get a handle on the issues affecting her students. It was during the home visits that she was confronted with the many conflicts plaguing her young charges. She gradually recognized in herself a desire to help the families deal with their struggles, and to do so she needed proper training. Sr. Andrea, then 40, remembers thinking, “I was really spending a lot of time with parents. And that was about the time that I realized, ‘I need to know what I’m doing; maybe I should begin to get some education.’”
After 16 years as a first-grade teacher, Sr. Andrea resigned her position to study for a master’s degree in social work at Hunter College. While attending school, she worked with Sr. Mary Nerney, a Sister of Notre Dame and social worker, to address the children’s needs in the Incarcerated Mother’s Program. Sr. Mary (deceased, 2013) was quoted in the New York Daily News in 1994: “She [Sr. Andrea] kept saying, ‘We’ve got to do something about the children. They would come here with the parents, and you just knew the abuse had been felt by them. We want to stop the cycle.’”
Sr. Andrea began her regular visits to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, Taconic Correctional Facility, and Rikers Island in 1985. She brought kids as young as three and into their teen years to the prisons to visit their mothers. “We brought the children up there for visits to connect, make sure the families kept in touch,” she said. In the office, Sr. Andrea provided counseling and group therapy for the guardians caring for the children and play therapy for the children.
In addition to her Monday-Friday work, Sister Andrea engaged in what she calls “a little volunteer work.” Buses arrived at 125th Street in Manhattan on Sunday mornings to provide transportation to those visiting the prisons. Sister Andrea became aware that families often missed the buses because of the reduced weekend schedules on public transportation. She and a small band of sisters arrived with cars at 125th Street to offer rides to those who missed the 9 a.m. bus departures. “The trip home,” she recalls, “was more difficult after the kids were separated from their mothers. My car was always filled with tears all the way back to the city.”
Sr. Andrea later worked as a trauma specialist in the Crime Victim Treatment Center at St. Luke-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan. For 16 years, she provided trauma treatment for survivors of rape, incest, battering, and other violent crimes, as well as play therapy for children who had witnessed domestic violence. From 1991 to 2018, Sr. Andrea lived and volunteered at Fox House, the Sisters of Charity ministry for homeless women with children.
Today Sr. Andrea continues her ministry of healing as a practicing psychotherapist and continues to engage in community life as a Sister of Charity. She is a member of the Sisters of Charity Ministry Network Board; the Saint Joseph Hospital Housing Board; and the Board of the Harlem Family Institute, from which she graduated in 1994. “As a board member I bring another dimension of diversity and a broader perspective, particularly related to the areas of work I have engaged in throughout my life.”
Several organizations have recognized Sr. Andrea for her groundbreaking work. She received the Harlem Family Institute Margaret Morgan Lawrence Award ( June 2000); the College of Mount Saint Vincent’s Elizabeth Seton Medal (May 2001); and the Archdiocese of New York Bakhita Woman of Faith and Service Award (February 2020), which acknowledged her “extraordinary work with survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and other violent crimes.” She is presently a Commissioner of the Office of Black Ministry for the Archdiocese of New York.
Sr. Andrea experienced the kindness of sisters to people in need in her home country and came to New York as a young woman eager to do the same. For 59 years, she has selflessly served in ministries that drew on her incredible capacity for empathy to help bring healing to countless women and children. And her work continues. “My ministry with people on the margins is both a blessing and a sadness,” she said. “I continue to be sustained by my faith and by what I call my ‘God Place’ — where I find goodness, light and hope.”