Bristol native Sr. Mary Sardinha was honored by members of the East Bay Chamber of Commerce as Citizen of the Year last night, during a banquet at Jacky’s Galaxie in Bristol. The Citizen of the Year is an honor bestowed upon a resident of the East Bay who has had a positive impact on the lives of others. We caught up with her before the banquet to talk about her decision to become a nun.
Sr. Mary Sardinha sat upright, but hardly still as she excitedly shared her life stories.
“The most exciting thing I’ve ever done,” she pondered, easing back into her chair for a moment. Then, as if shocked to life, she piped up and told the story of how she explored the basin of the Grand Canyon – on the back of a donkey.
“You haven’t lived until you’ve done that,” she said, smiling. “From the top to the bottom, you go through several climates.”
Every story Sr. Sardinha told revealed another story, and another.
At 79 years old, her memory was as sharp and vivid as a youngster, much like she acts. And within each story is a miracle.
“There’s another miracle,” she’d quip, and passionately explain how she would pray to God to allow her to transport more than 40 nuns for free, to witness the canonization of Saint Paula Frassinetti, the foundress of Sr. Sardinha’s order, the Sisters of St. Dorothy; or the miracle that she recovered from surgery related to her bout with kidney cancer in the knick of time to catch a plane to Rome for the event.
“He answers your prayers. He holds his promises,” she said.
When Sr. Sardinha – affectionately known as “Sister Sards” – was 17, she entered the convent. It was probably the last thing she wanted to do, she admitted.
Not even her grandmother believed she’d go through with her decision to be a nun. Sister Sards attended every sporting event, danced the weekend away and “had a blast” as a teenager.
“I prayed for two years, please God I want an exciting life, don’t let me be a nun,” she said.
But, the devoted Catholic she is, she listened when He called her to service.
Since then, she’s been on mission trips to China, Mexico, Texas, and then some. Each time, she’d fed the poor, helped the sick and injected an enthusiasm for Christ among the people.
“She’s been on every continent in the planet, except Australian,” said her brother, Ed.
“And here I thought being a nun was boring,” she laughed.
The only girl, aside from her mother, in a family of nine, Sister Sards had learned to have faith early on. She recounted the exuberance her brothers expressed at her birth that, “finally, the family had a dishwasher.” Later, the boys would play keep-away with her, and toss her from one set of arms to another, to her mother’s fright. Yet, they never dropped her. She would even be asked to stand stiff and fall backwards into their arms.
“I did all that and was never afraid,” she said.
When she was 8 years old, five of her brothers were away fighting in World War II. She was left to help care for her nieces and nephews. Her mother insisted that every day the family would attend Mass and pray the Rosary.
She also had to write letters to her brothers, daily.
“I couldn’t wait ’til the end of the war, to bury every pen in the house,” she exclaimed. “Boy did I hate writing letters.”
It was then she made her pact with God: If he could bring all five of her brothers home from the war safely, she would dedicate her life to His service.
She was able to be by her mother’s side for five years while she struggled with an illness, and later died.
“Another promise He kept,” Sister Sards said, adding that if she were to become a nun, she needed to be available if her mother needed her. “He always keeps His promises.”
Sister Sards taught for over 20 years at Our Lady of Fatima High School in Warren. She also established the summer camp on the grounds of the Sisters of Saint Dorothy compound on Monkey Wrench Lane, soon to be in its 47th year.
Sister Sards was also instrumental in creating the Villa Fatima Preschool in Taunton, Mass.
“Her love for God, and her love for what she does is infectious,” said her niece, Sheila Morris-Sardinha.
Sister Sards was nominated by Sheila, and the application was overwhelmingly accepted by the Chamber’s board of directors.
“She’s done so much for so many,” said Keith Sartini, the newly elected chairman of the board. “She’s deserving of the accolades.”