Even before you ask her, Sister Mary Constance Fitzgerald is ready to tell you what she thinks the secrets to longevity are.
“Be open to each day and find satisfaction in knowing that you made a difference in the world. Big or small. Be open to the present. If you have obstacles, try to find creative solutions. Eat healthy. We never had cakes or cookies growing up. None of that sugar. And read. Every day.”
At 101-years-old, Sister Constance has a lot to say about life, the nature of ministry and the power of words. As a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet for 83 years, Sister Constance found her calling as a teacher, nurturer and lifelong learner that took her from Southern California schools to Central California migrant camps, to homeless shelters in Mexico and beyond.
Meeting with her in the cozy sitting room in her home at Mount St. Mary’s campus where Sister Constance lives with other retired religious, you would never guess her age. She is upbeat, smiling and full of stories.
From the time she entered the religious order at age 18, Sister Constance has been busy. Most recently she was a volunteer proofreader for Designs, the order’s quarterly magazine, but these days, she spends her time responding to justice-related action alerts sent out by her religious order. She’s a big reader and participates in a weekly book club; her favorite types of books are historical fiction and biographies.
In addition, Sister Constance corresponds regularly with family members, friends and former students; she even has a pen pal in a Texas prison. She stays in close touch with her younger siblings who also found service as a religious: Sister Anne Gertrude Fitzgerald (100) is also a Carondelet and Redemptorist Father Bill Fitzgerald is 94.
Sister Constance is active with email and knows her way around the Internet. She also participates in a Alzheimer’s research study at UC Irvine’s Clinic for Aging Research. To call her an active senior is an understatement.
Sister Constance is adamant that reading is the key to keeping mentally fit. She learned how to read in first grade when she and her family were living in the Spokane, Washington, area.
“My father used to show me off to people, here I was reading Uncle Wiggly at such a young age,” she says with a laugh.
When the family moved to San Bernardino, her love of words often got her teased by the neighbor kids.
“Our backyard was always full of kids, mostly boys,” she says. A nearby stream was often dammed in the summer and kids use galvanized containers to “sail” in it.
When she toppled over, Sister Constance hollered, “Come to my assistance!” which made everyone snicker. “Oh, I was so mad at them,” she recalls. “They were making fun of my ‘big words.’”
After her vows, Sister Constance taught at many California and Arizona schools; her favorite subject (what else?) was high school English.
Accepting an assignment to teach English to migrant workers outside of Fresno was a life-changing experience for Sister Constance.
“Those people had so much love in their hearts,” she says, adding that she really wanted to speak Spanish, but didn’t feel like she mastered it.
“I cried so much when I had to leave them,” she said.
Sister Constance had another opportunity to learn Spanish when she was sent to staff a homeless men’s shelter in Guaymas, Mexico. She and a fellow sister drove from Fresno to Mexico in a non-air conditioned car. “It was an adventure!” she says and follows up with numerous stories about caring for the homeless, driving them to clinics, feeding them, saying the rosary together and journeying with them.
All in all, Sister Constance admits she had “a rich life” and hopes her story will encourage those who think they may have a calling to “put yourself in the hands of God and open yourself to the world every day, because once you are a member, you are never alone.”