Teresa Fitzgerald is a pure New Yorker. She works in Long Island City in Queens. She talks fast. She thinks fast. She acts fast. Even when she smiles, Teresa Fitzgerald gets things done. Teresa Fitzgerald also spends her days hanging out in prisons. She regularly visits female prisoners at places like Riker’s Island. And Teresa Fitzgerald does all of her work with ex-cons. She seems like a character right out of a network cop procedural, the tough dame with a heart. But, she isn’t a cop, or a lawyer, or a judge. She’s a nun. And rather than being cloistered away, dressed in a traditional habit, and practicing a vow of silence, Sister Tesa runs around the city, wears business clothing, and practices a vow of ruckus and helping a group of people we all often ignore. No Sister Tesa doesn’t feed the hungry or clothe the naked. And her orders come not only from the man upstairs, but from the depth of her heart and soul. She’s all business. The thing is, Sister Tesa’s business is kindness.
In the beginning...
Sister Tesa just isn’t the kind of nun you imagine when you hear the word. She won’t slap you with a ruler (usually). And she’s definitely not the “flying” variety made popular by Sally Field. She’s a grassroots-feet-to-the-street nun. Her work began in NYS curriculum oversight for Catholic elementary schools for the Diocese of Brooklyn. After that, she was both a principal and teacher at various Catholic elementary schools throughout Brooklyn and Queens. And even while she was doing all that, she was certified as a Foster Care Trainer. Then, in 1986, Sister Tesa and four other Sisters of St. Joseph, including Sister Kathy (after whom one of their Houses is now named) pushed to open St. Rita’s Convent as a care-center for children whose mother’s were in prison. By 1989, Sister Tesa was a foster mother to eight children of incarcerated mothers. In 1996 their caring became Hour Children, which now comprises a community of 5 houses that help 45 families stay together, grow together and thrive.
She will tell you (as she told CBS News) that the impetus for their action was something simple, something completely clear and something undeniable: “I was just moved to think that a child was ripped apart from a mother at any point in time.” And when you watch Sister Tesa with the kids, she doesn’t take on a stern affect. She isn’t the type to scold or scowl. No, she’ll dance with the kids, she’ll sing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and her face is so alight with a smile that you’re nearly blinded. She’s just unconventional, both in the way we popularly view nuns, and in the way we popularly view imprisoned women. Hers is a mission to guide women who have made bad decisions back to a point of recovery and success. Hers is a mission to keep children from losing their moms entirely. Hers is a mission to create families and goodwill that reconnect, reinvigorate and strengthen communities. And she won’t even take all the credit.
She thanks her volunteers with warm, well-thought, loving words. She speaks of the innate kindness of humanity and the dedicated compassion of everyone who acknowledges the plight of these mothers and their children. And she’ll tell you, outright, what it all really means to her: “My heart and my life and my passion has really been working with not only the children whose mothers are in prison, but also with their moms.” Not to make light of the Process of Beatification, but if Sister Tesa doesn’t make the short list, then we’d be the first to call for a recount.
Awards and Honors
- 2012 CNN Heroes Nominee
- 2010 Ozanam Award
- 2010 Queens Person of the Week