Staten Island Home, Hearts Lifted by ‘Charity in the City’


Through it all, St. Francis stood fast. The little ceramic statue in the blue shrine in Camille Brennan’s front yard at 623 Yetman Ave. in the Tottenville area of Staten Island disappeared quickly under the surging water when Hurricane Sandy hit last October. Neighboring houses were displaced from their foundations; lives were washed out to sea. Cars and wayward yard furniture floated up the battered street. But when the waters receded, St. Anthony was still upright.

“A lot of things were washed away, my mailbox is no longer there. Stuff was just floating. But my St. Anthony never moved,” said Ms. Brennan, who lives with her 12-year-old son, Anthony. “If you drive around this neighborhood you will see St. Anthony, Blessed Mother, Sacred Heart, They’re all still there. Not one statue floated way on us. Is that not a miracle?”

To Ms. Brennan, this little miracle stands as a testament to the resiliency, pride and steadfastness of the people of this tightly knit Italian neighborhood just yards from the exposed beaches of Staten Island’s south shore. There are empty lots where homes once stood, and other damaged houses are still encased in plywood more than seven months after Hurricane Sandy. But you also see amazing progress here.

Camille Brennan’s tidy home is a perfect example, the front yard immaculate, St. Anthony still standing watch. In the backyard, the sun deck had just received a fresh coat of auburn paint, courtesy of three young women who were doing some final touching up in early June, before moving on to their next house.

LeeAnn Brathwaite, a senior at the College of Mount St. Vincent, and Sheree Brown-Carter, a junior there, and Taylor Steigler, a senior at Boston College, were volunteers with Charity in the City, a program established six years ago by the Sisters of Charity, in which young women are invited to volunteer their services for a couple of weeks in the summer while living simply in a faith community. Usually, the women are assigned to help one of the programs the Sisters of Charity operate year-round: soup kitchens, shelters, the Elizabeth Seton Pediatric Center or nursing homes. But this year was different.

“The Sisters of Charity have a very rich history here on Staten Island. We don’t have any more sisters on the island but Elizabeth Seton, our foundress, was born here,” explained Sister Mary Lou McGrath, S.C., director of volunteer services. “And we just felt like Elizabeth was saying to us ‘come back to my birthplace, this is where you are needed this year.’ It was like a haunting kind of call.”

It was originally going to be six women, but three dropped out because of other commitments. As far as Sister Mary Lou is concerned, the number of girls she has at any given time is the number she needs. The Lord provides. “Fifteen kids would have been great. But I don’t play the numbers game,” she said. “Whoever comes are the people who are meant to be here!” The girls spent three days working at the Brennan home. The girls are doing a variety of tasks on houses that no longer need heavy repairs.

They were staying, along with Sister Mary Lou, at a nearby house supplied by the local parish, Our Lady Help of Christians. Father D. Francis Diaz, the pastor, provided the furnishings to make the living space comfortable.

The newly painted deck was their crowning achievement but they had also cleaned the basement, cleared out the garden shed and removed the debris and silt that had accumulated in the backyard, filling several large garbage bags. Sister Mary Lou also chipped in helping paint railings before she was “voted off the island.”

“You had to see the before to appreciate the after,” said a beaming Ms. Brennan surveying her like-new deck. “When they came here this yard was a mess, there was dirt and mud all over. They made it look like new. They have worked so hard. It’s very hard for me to put into words. Not only are they working, they bring a lot of happiness with them.”

The affection was mutual. Ms. Brennan had made the girls and Sister Mary Lou a heaping tray of baked ziti to take back to their living quarters the night before and had prepared huge lunches each day the girls were there.

“It’s been fun,” exclaimed Ms. Brown-Carter. “Camille has this beautiful hospitality. She’s just so sweet and I feel so at home here. Her son, Anthony, made us these nice bracelets. We’ve just been having fun. We’re happy to make her smile.

“She was so nice to us and we thought, we’re just painting a deck! But it’s more than just a deck to her,” Ms. Brathwaite added.

“I think it’s beautiful, “ chimed in Ms. Steigler. “When Camille put in the flowers last night and the pots, I looked around and said this house is gorgeous. You’d never know it was hit by Sandy.”

All three girls, and Sister Mary Lou, are invited back to enjoy the fruits of their labors with a pool party.

“I’m so grateful and thankful for them and to Sister because she made this possible,” Ms. Brennan said. “She took these girls and she made my son and me a beautiful yard to enjoy our summer. I’ve met such wonderful people through this disaster, I’ve met such wonderful, special people from all over—these girls, and with Sister, of course, I’ve made a friend for life.”


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