It’s been 15 minutes since the North Fork Spanish Apostolate’s doors in Riverhead opened for the day and the waiting list to see Sister Margaret Smyth is already growing.
On this Tuesday morning, she’s seated behind her wooden desk, surrounded by homemade paintings, trinkets and gifts received from those she’s helped. Sister Margaret talks with a woman in Spanish, gesturing with a pen as the woman explains her situation.
Across the room, behind a thin divider, people sit patiently, waiting for their chance to ask for Sister’s help. Some have traffic tickets they don’t know how to answer in English. Others need advice or assistance with immigration matters, a translator to get married or advice on where to find a dentist.
Juan and Betty traveled from their Greenport home to speak with Sister Margaret. Juan, a Guatemalan national, and Betty, who is Mexican, have a 4-year-old daughter who needs a U.S. passport.
The couple speak English, but not well, and can’t read the language well enough to complete the paperwork themselves. They came to the Apostolate because they know what so many other Hispanic people on the North Fork also know: If you’re in need, go to Sister Margaret.
“Everyone needs to know what she does,” Juan says.
Last Thursday night, Sister Margaret received some official recognition, winning a Human Rights Lifetime Achievement Award for her service as executive director and founder of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate.
More than 100 people gathered in Holtsville at the 50th anniversary awards dinner of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission, which works to eliminate bias and discrimination.
Sister Margaret plays a key part in the commission’s efforts to reach Suffolk County residents who would otherwise have no voice, said commission chairman Rabbi Steven Moss.
“Someone like Sister Margaret is essential for all this,” Rabbi Moss said.
Luis Valenzuela, a commission member, said he met Sister Margaret through his wife, who was working with Sister Margaret to educate families. Mr. Valenzuela’s wife told him stories about the woman who “got up with the birds and did not go to sleep with the sun.”
Since then, he said, he’s often witnessed her dedication firsthand.
Mr. Valenzuela recalled a time when Sister Margaret was suffering from exhaustion and was hospitalized. She was scheduled to take part in a panel with him the next day.
“I’m talking [to the audience] and I’m saying ‘Sister Margaret isn’t going to be able to be here,’ and all of a sudden everybody’s clapping and Sister Margaret shows up,” he said during the awards dinner.
Sister Margaret embodies the idea of working for others, Mr. Valenzuela said, adding she has good reason not to stop.
“People in pain exist 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said, “and they need people like Sister Margaret.”
Sister Helen Muhlbauer has been volunteering at the Apostolate for the past two years. A friend of Sister Margaret’s from the convent, Sister Helen said she’s still impressed by her friend’s enthusiasm and commitment.
Sister Margaret is more than an advocate, she said.
She was a schoolteacher and principal. She’s part social worker and part lawyer, versed in immigration law and the courts, and her work doesn’t end when she leaves the office at the end of the day, Sister Helen said.
On Monday night, Sister Margaret and some friends were walking to Digger’s restaurant on West Main Street to celebrate her award when a Hispanic man approached them.
“Hermana Margarita?” the man asked, “Are you Sister Margaret?” He needed legal aid for an upcoming court date, but didn’t know how to get help.
Sister Margaret had the man come back to her office at 7 p.m., reopened the doors and walked him through the steps.
“Every [praise] she gets, she deserves,” Sister Helen said. “I don’t know where she gets her strength from, but she does it.”
About 11 a.m. Tuesday, Sister Margaret sees a break in the action. She’s just finished helping a woman and Juan and Betty are nearby, filling out their child’s passport application.
She prints out directions for another man, then spins through the Rolodex on her desk. The office waiting room is starting to fill with people again.
“Oh, this is light,” she says of the turnout, flashing a smile.
The Apostolate was founded 16 years ago, after Sister Margaret saw the potential to help an underserved population.
She’s busy almost every day now even after the office doors close, attending masses, conducting weddings, organizing youth groups and more.
This Tuesday is no different. Sister Margaret is planning to go into court in the afternoon to advocate on behalf of a child in an adoption case.
And she doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon. Sister Margaret has helped the Apostolate grow from a tiny office to the multi-room operation she now oversees. She says the organization is constantly looking for new ways to help those who need it most.
Used clothes in plastic bins line a wall and plastic bags filled with food wait for the hungry in cubbies in a back room. Sister Margaret says the Apostolate may soon create a website.
She says she does it all for one simple reason: that’s what you’re supposed to do.
“Isaiah says we are called to bring sight to the blind … to set those who are prisoner free and to bring Good News to people,” she says. “And the Good News is that you are dignified and you are worthy of respect.”