Meet Sister Cecilia LaPietra (or, "The Rock," or, Sister Celia).
Whatever people are calling her, they're doing it with gusto and admiration.
Currently, this Nyack nun is working with the One to One Learning program to teach Spanish-speaking residents English. One on One's mission is simple and direct: language empowers, language unites.
"We found out it's like building bridges," LaPietra said. LaPietra is the founder and director of the 13-year-old program, which is sponsored by the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill.
(Read about its recent celebratory picnic here).
For the last three years, the program has been based on the campus of Marydell Faith and Life Center at the end of Midland Avenue in Upper Nyack. It began at the convent in Sparkill, teaching English to an ever-growing Spanish population. But the program grew so quickly that another venue had to be found.
That's when Father Dwyer opened his doors at St. John the Baptist Church in Piermont.
"People were looking to go to a mass in Spanish, but we had no church to go to," remembered LaPietra, who recently marked her 51st year with the Dominican Sisters.
"We went to St. John's to see if we could start a mass in Spanish and allow classes there," she explained. "Fr. Dwyer said 'yes' almost immediately."
Sad to relate, Fr. Dwyer passed away on the first day that LaPietra starting working there.
"That very day he died," LaPietra said. "The first thing I did was his funeral—imagine that."
"I got to meet the new pastor, Fr. John Mulligan," she continued. "He could have been against [the program], but he said 'yes' and it worked. Now if you go to one o'clock mass, you'll see many Spanish people."
One to One Learning has mushroomed to such a point that it tutors some 250-300 students and is staffed by 50 volunteer teachers.
"Without these wonderful people [and] this wonderful method [small groups], it would not work," LaPietra said, noting that she is always looking for teachers. "And you don't have to speak Spanish to teach English."
(Heads up: a teacher's meeting and workshop is scheduled Sept. 9.)
LaPietra, 69 and a Bronx native, started her ministry as a chemistry teacher—and believes it was a bit harder than her current ministry.
"This is easier because some kids didn't want to learn chemistry," she explained. "Here, they want to learn English. The students really want to learn. It's a good feeling."
The students—and teachers—come from throughout the county, from towns such as Nyack, Spring Valley, New City, Congers, Nanuet, Orangeburg and even Haverstraw. This is made possible, in part, because of a van that is available to drive those students who need transportation.
"The late Sen. Tom Morahan got us $20,000 from the State Education Department, and our students raised the rest of the money," recounts LaPietra, adding that fund-raising is the biggest challenge for her non-profit organization.
"It costs more to operate the program now," she said. "But I've met so many wonderful people. I'm contented, peaceful, always knowing that God is present. Working with kids keeps me young and healthy."
Over the years, One to One has turned out students who went into the community and contributed. Two young women and recent graduates are now working for an attorney.
"We've had several who started landscaping businesses [and] opened restaurants," LaPietra added.
For further information on any of the following programs, please visit the program's website, or call LaPietra at (845) 512-8176.
- Language classes, Monday and Wednesday, 8-9:30 p.m., Sept. through June. The first class is scheduled Sept. 13.
- Day-time classes to accommodate those who can't make the night-time session. "Whatever fits the students," LaPietra says.
- Computer classes, Tuesday and Thursday, 8-9:30 p.m.
- Mini-classes before class on Monday and Wednesday, 7-8 p.m., featuring health, parenting, sewing, knitting and crocheting.
- Children's programs are held when parents are in class, taught in a cabin with volunteers helping with homework. "For the little ones we have reading activities, games and snacks," LaPietra says. "If we didn't have this for the children, a lot of people couldn't come to class."