A weave of tears and praise bade farewell to Sister Mary Celine Graham Friday at Saint Aloysius Church in Harlem, pastored by the Rev. Frederick Pellegrini. Sister Mary of the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure of Heart of Mary was killed on June 22 when robbery suspects fleeing police crashed their getaway car into a crowd of pedestrians, injuring four others. Sister Mary was 83.
Appropriately, the services, after a commentary by Sister Gertrude Lily, began with the hymn “When the Saints Go Marching In,” as Sister Mary, in every respect according to those who knew her well, was a saintly soul who touched thousands with her abiding care and concern.
“We enjoyed her friendship,” said His Eminence Edward Cardinal Egan, who presided. “She lived the way Christ taught us to live.”
That living began in Jacksonville, Florida on July 8, 1926. At 22, Sister Mary entered the Handmaids and took her final vows in 1956.
For more than 60 years, Sister Mary’s ministries took her far and wide, including tenures in North Carolina and State Island. From 1981 to 1988, she taught at St. Benedict’s Day Nursery and served as its administrator from 1989 to 1999.
“As a nurturing educator, Sister Mary Celine Graham poured knowledge and wisdom into generations of students, helping to build studious discipline, academic excellence and noble character,” said Inez Dickens, majority whip of the City Council. “I can give personal testimony to her grandeur of heart and dedication, having been tutored by her in grade school.
“Through her tutelage,” Dickens continued, “I was able to catch up to reading at my grade level in primary school. I’ve come so far since those early days of my life, but I would be remiss if I did not recognize the profound impact that she had in my life and countless others.”
During Sister Mary’s retirement, her main ministry was prayer for priests, and the church was filled on this mournful day with many of the priests praying for her heavenly deliverance.
“What I recall about her was her gentleness in the face of violence,” said Brother Tyrone Davis, executive director of the Office of Black Ministry of the New York Archdiocese. “That was the hallmark of who she was.”
Her watching over others was invoked when Marion Bell and her son, Harold, rendered their version of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”
One of Sister Mary’s closest friends, Sister Loretta Theresa, read the obituary. Father Lawrence Lucas was the celebrant, and the Rev. James Goode was the homilist. Congressman Charles Rangel was among the dignitaries in attendance.
Sister Mary is survived by her brother, Marion Graham, Jr., who read from Isaiah; sisters, Maybelle Graham, Ivory Gamble and Pearlene Gamble; nephews and nieces Marion Graham, Jr.; Altamese Ford; Franklin Gamble; and Betty Tillman;Herbert Delancey, an “adopted” son, and a host of grand-nephews and nieces, and great-grand nephews and nieces. And, of course, numerous sisters of the Franciscan Handmaids and priests.