Sister Cecile Reiley – A Moving Spirit Who “Floats Like a Butterfly”

Sister Cecile Anne Reiley R.I.P.

Sister Cecile Anne Reiley, SSJ, 76, passed away April 24. Born in Pottsville, PA, she was sister of Edmond Reiley Jr., the Rev. Robert Reiley MM, John Reiley, Sister Kathleen Reiley MM and the late Eleanor Pepper.

Religious, relatives and friends are invited to a viewing at 1:30 p.m., April 29, followed by a funeral Mass at 3 p.m. Donations to St. Joseph Villa in Sister’s name would be appreciated. 

Sister Cecile Reiley – A Moving Spirit Who “Floats Like a Butterfly”

By Marybeth C. Phillips

Reprinted and abridged from Irish Edition, March 2012

Watch out if Sister Cecile Reiley tells you she’s going to “check something out.” That’s code for throwing her body and soul into that “something” full-force, or, as she quotes the poet Yeats, “into the deep heart’s core.”

That’s how Cecile describes her calling into the Sisters of St. Joseph 54 years ago, after she spent one year at Immaculata College in Chester County, PA.  Cecile, a native of Pottsville, was educated for 12 years by the Sisters of St. Joseph, as well as Carmelite priests during high school, graduating Class of 1956.

As a gifted student and excellent musician (my words, not hers), she wanted to earn a degree. So she left her upstate home, and her marvelous family of parents and five siblings, almost next door to the Yuengling Brewery where the heavenly scent of hops wafted through her neighborhood every morning.

Immaculata College, an educational institution taught and administered by the Sisters of the Immaculata Heart of Mary, was a stimulating environment. Yet she had a restless feeling inside her, the sense that she wanted to “check something out” while she was still young.

Cecile entered the novitiate of the St. Joseph sisters in 1957, and instantly experienced a “great peace,” one that has stayed with her all these many years. There’s been no looking back.

That’s not to say Cecile has had an easy time throughout her life. But like most humble and faithful women, she keeps her troubles under wraps, and forges ahead heroically, even if rheumatoid arthritis is ravaging her ability to walk and has created the need for several surgeries. This interview took place at St. Joseph’s Villa in Flourtown, where she is still recovering from a surgery performed in November.

“I’ve always loved paintings by Renoir,” Cecile noted at the most recent exhibit of his works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “But I’ve also been inspired by him as a victim of arthritis, and how he painted every day even though he was in excruciating pain — until he could no longer hold the brush.”

Cecile, who double-majored in Music and English during her education with the S.S.J.’s over several years at Chestnut Hill College, somehow later in life fit in learning the fine arts.  She has often painted the beautiful works we see on the cards sent by St. Malachy Parish in North Philadelphia.

Mission at St. Malachy’s

St. Malachy’s has been home to her calling for several years now, and her behind-the-scenes ministry there is not well known to outsiders. Her most visible manifestation may be her artistic influence with the women and men of the parish, when they decorate the entire church together, for each holy day and special event.

For the Celtic New Year/Irish concert every November, the biggest fundraiser for the school annually, she made ordinary sheaves of wheat look like gold under the artfully placed lighting, and flowers and harvest fruit come to life, dancing in 3-D.

“Our parishioner Dee Bodell is a wonderful artist, and she’s a tremendous contributor to all the visual beauty at Malachy’s too,” Cecile notes.

But so much of her work at Malachy’s involves performing any and every mundane task which needs doing, smoothing out the day-to-day functioning, so that the urgent needs of both parishioners and strangers who come calling to the food cupboard, or folks who need pastoral counseling, everyday people whose problems are beyond their abilities to cope with them, get the help they need.

Cecile uses everything she has learned, drawing on her M.S. degree in Pastoral Counseling from the University of Scranton, and even more, using her own deep faith in God to work things out for each of us, no matter how painful the experience, whether physical or psychological. “God knows what He is about,” she had said long ago.

Cecile is a much-needed soft feminine voice on the parish office phone and in person, a gentle voice, but full of the power of prayer, and the belief in God’s will to be done. Few could ever guess that this slender, auburn-haired lady with the azure-blue eyes is a powerhouse for creative problem solving and for making the best happen. She believes in “Ask and you shall receive” and it is nearly impossible to say “no” to her requests on behalf of others.

Meeting Muhammad Ali

Even Muhammad Ali fell under her spell some years ago. No real fan of the fights, Cecile watched Ali’s career through his TV interviews, learning of his trouble with the U.S. government, when he became conscientious objector as a result of adopting the Islamic faith during the Viet Nam years. After refusing military service, Ali lost his fight title and belt, and could not go into the ring for three and a half years, until 1974.

Cecile respected his studying his faith, and the new name that faith required She watched, mesmerized, as he corrected those still calling him “Cassius Clay.”  But when he came back to the world of boxing, Ali had a training camp for boxers in Deer Lake, PA, not far from Cecile’s hometown of Pottsville, where he was preparing for the Joe Frazier fight.

Once, on a visit back to her family home upstate, she and her mother were driving on errands, and Cecile, attired in what was then the full habit of the Sisters, asked her mom to take her to Muhammad Ali’s training camp.

Her reluctant mother obliged, and Sister was welcomed into the camp, where Ali personally gave her a tour of the training gym’s sparring building, the dining hall where she saw the “biggest cake in my life,” and the residential buildings, which were old Southern-style cabins, with huge hand pumps for drawing water.

Cecile told Ali about her ministry work where she was stationed at that time, the Paradise School for Boys west of Harrisburg. The Paradise School was a residential treatment center for delinquent boys, and Sister knew how much those boys needed a fatherly figure, and hero in their lives to look up to.

She asked Ali to come visit them —- and he agreed!  But something came up for the fighter that prevented his trip to the school. Instead, Cecile drove a huge vanload of the boys to Ali’s camp.  In nun-parlance, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”  Angelo Dundee was there too.

To the great credit of Cecile’s loving parents, her family somehow inspired two other siblings to take religious vows, a brother who is a Maryknoll priest in China, and a sister who is a Maryknoll nun. That sister is also a “Roshi,” a Zen master certified to teach Buddhism. She teaches English at a university in Japan, but also gives Buddhist retreats from Myanmar to Germany.

Another brother is mayor of the old hometown, Pottsville, and the oldest brother lives in Massachusetts. But their sister Eleanor died tragically in 1997, and that deep pain is mitigated only by the entire family’s even deeper faith, which helps them accept the loss.

Cecile taught Language Arts at the grade school level for the first 14 years as a Sister of St. Joseph, but she had always wanted to work in an orphanage. Her years at Paradise School and the Catholic Home for Girls adjacent to St. Vincent’s Home for Unwed Mothers fulfilled those ambitions for her. 

Immigration Counselor

Later in her vocation, she was called to serve as an immigration counselor for foreign refugees in the Diocese of Allentown, and then in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. “This was my life’s greatest challenge professionally,” Cecile admitted.  “Immigration law was changing by the minute, so the rules were different almost weekly, it seemed.”

Cecile’s immigration work had her assisting Vietnamese Boat People in the 1970’s, the Iranians after their Shah was toppled in 1979, and the “undocumented” refugees from El Salvador, during the Reagan years of the 1980’s.

“I was so impressed by some of our federal agents during the 1980’s, as they had such big hearts, individually. These people from El Salvador were not here ‘legally’ due to Reagan’s actions, but the agents knew they were still innocent people who needed help,” she noted.

“Once when the agents seized a U-Haul truck, they saw that there were men, women and children in it, some babies. They would have to place the men in jail, but they made sure the women and children came to us in the church, as they were our fellow Catholics.

“So I would network with non-diocesan orders of priests and nuns along with the Quakers who would provide safe houses or church sanctuaries for these Salvadorans.

“We had them in places like Holy Child parish convent in Olney,” she added.  Cecile also helped those fleeing the Eastern Block countries in the late ’80s, as well as Cuban and Haitian refugees.

“The work was truly difficult on every level,” Cecile noted, “but I had a wonderful experience of these refugees changing my ‘Irish palette’ from the typical meat and potatoes I had grown up on, to foods I had never eaten before, with delicious spices and exotic ingredients. These people expressed tremendous gratitude to us for helping them, and it was usually in the form of foods they made for us.”

But Cecile feels that her home at St. Malachy Parish will be her ministry for as long as she can “hold the brush,” so to speak. She fills any need she observes there, and is committed to the Catholic Peace Fellowship, which has been meeting at Malachy’s for nearly 30 years.

It’s not unusual to see Cecile “marching” with CPF, to the best of her limited walking ability, to protest our many American wars or to observe solemn occasions, such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki remembrances, even if she is right under the nose of her former employer of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on 17th Street.

In her work with CPF, and with the Brandywine Peace Community and other peace and social-activism groups, she prays, marches, and educates the public, so no more wars cost precious lives and money needed for innocent people, leading innocent daily lives. She tries to carry on the works of the Berrigan brothers, her friends and inspiration. And daily, Cecile asks God for the greatest miracle of all — peace in our world.

But in the past two months, she’s also been asking God for one smaller miracle: to keep St. Malachy School open, since the Archdiocese announced recently that it will close this oasis in the desert of North Philadelphia.

The diocese accepted our appeal and St. Malachy’s will remain open as a mission school. We thank Pastors McNamee and Lawrence and other interested parishioners and supporters who have enabled this to come about.”

For this smaller miracle, I have a feeling even God can’t say ‘no’ to Cecile, as she floats into His consciousness like the pacifist butterfly that she is, painting a beautiful picture of St. Malachy’s needs for Him, with the artful and pleading brush that is her personality. She’ll definitely be checking that out with Him.