Meet Sr. Angela Frances Sutera
Ever since childhood, Sr. Angela Frances Sutera has been adding beauty to the world through her creative gifts. She grew up surrounded by the beauty of the Italian island of Sicily. Angela and her four brothers lived with their parents on a farm in a town near Palermo—Marineo, founded in the 16th century. In describing the experience of returning to her childhood home, Sr. Angela gives a sense of its magic: “There is no plane from Philadelphia to Palermo because the Palermo airport is small. From Rome, you take a small jet. It’s a beautiful flight because of the low altitude. But it is more romantic to go by train and ferry because the boat goes slowly. You travel all night. Up on the balcony of the boat as it approaches Sicily, you first see the statue of the Blessed Mother. At night you only see the crown. Early in the morning, you cannot miss the sun rising. From far away, your heart starts pounding if you were born there.”
When Angela left school after fifth grade, her mother told her, “Now you have to continue to learn for yourself. I want you to learn to sew men’s clothes for your brothers and father.” So several days a week for the next few years, Angela took sewing lessons as an apprentice. After just six months, she began sewing for her family alongside her mother.
Angela also learned her outstanding cooking skills by helping her mother. Together they made their family meals from scratch, including the pasta and bread. As Sr. Angela explains, “One day was for making the bread and then cleaning up all the mess. We made 20 loaves of bread every week. It was an all-day affair. My mother and I would finish before the boys and my father came home. Another day was for making pasta— the same thing, we started early in the morning.”
When Angela was 16, her father died. She recalls, “I stopped going to school for sewing and started making clothes for myself. I practiced my knowledge of sewing because I had to make all my clothes in black.”
When Angela was about 20, her oldest brother moved to the United States; a second brother followed. Their mother had been born in Brooklyn, New York, but had soon returned with her family to Italy, where she now wanted to remain. Sr. Angela tells more of the story: “I had already mentioned to my mother that once my brothers had all married, I wanted to enter the convent. My mother was a little upset, but she thought I would change my mind. I said, ‘What if I go to America and once my brothers are all married, I will come back?’ I really meant to do that. So May 18, 1969, I left my home, my family, my country—I’d never been away from home by myself.” Angela joined her brothers in Garfield, New Jersey. There for the first years, “I never knew a word of English because I went to the Italian Mass and stores, and then I went to work in an Italian factory making coats and jackets.”
Shortly after Angela’s oldest brother married, a third brother moved to New Jersey from Italy. Angela lived with her unmarried brothers in Garfield for another three years, and then these brothers also married. So in January 1976, Angela followed her dream and entered the Sisters of St. Francis in St. Margaret Parish, Woodbury Heights, New Jersey—a community of Italian sisters from Assisi, the Franciscan Sisters of the Infant Jesus.
Sr. Angela’s talents were quickly put to use, sewing and cooking for the sisters in her community. Although these sisters were Italian speaking, Sr. Angela “went with the sisters to any course that was available to practice English. I started taking English as a second language, and I got my high-school equivalency. Then I started to work toward a degree. I had to start from simple courses. I also took theology courses because I thought that with them I could connect the ideas even if I didn’t understand everything. I used to record the lectures to listen to them again, and I rewrote my notes many times.”
Sr. Angela remained with the Woodbury Heights community for 15 years. When she professed, she began teaching prekindergarten— while still continuing her sewing and cooking. Included in her ministry was making good use of food donations such as the 60 pounds of flour she used to make pizza and bread for her community and for the sisters teaching in the nearby school. On snow days or other brief closures, the school still received its regular orders including milk, which was then donated to the convent. After the convent freezers were full, additional milk would remain. Sr. Angela’s idea of making cheese from this milk was enthusiastically accepted, and her mother sent over fresh yeast to make the cheese.
In teaching prekindergarten, Sr. Angela recalls, “The first time, I had 21 two- and three-year-olds. I played with the children and sang songs with them, even in Italian, and I made costumes for the Christmas play. The sisters encouraged me to take courses for a degree in early childhood education, so I started taking courses that could apply to my work with the children. It took me seven years to get my degree because I took one course at a time. My degree is for nursery school to grade eight, but I took all the courses I could that would apply to the babies because I loved working with them. I never wanted to teach beyond kindergarten.” Sr. Angela graduated from William Paterson University.
Wanting to be with her children— even with the sadness of leaving Italy—Sr. Angela’s mother moved to New Jersey. And so when Sr. Angela made her final vows, her mother was present. Several years later, Sr. Angela transferred to the Ringwood Franciscan community, which was closer to where her mother was living.
As part of the Ringwood community, Sr. Angela was able to visit her mother every weekend—to take her shopping, for instance, and attend Italian Mass with her on Sunday morning. She followed this routine for about 10 years. As her mother’s health declined, managing her mother’s medical appointments and other needs became increasingly difficult. Sr. Annette Lucchese, then Ringwood’s congregational minister, recognized how exhausting the routine was for Sr. Angela and offered her the opportunity to live with her mother. Sr. Angela—who took courses to be certified as a nurse’s aide in order to be an excellent caregiver— lived with her mother for the remaining four years of her mother’s life.
Sr. Angela’s school had closed a year before her mother died, and so after her mother’s death, Sr. Angela came to Aston to Our Lady of Angels. Finding a teaching job in a Pennsylvania diocesan school was difficult because a number of schools were closing at the time. With the encouragement of other sisters, she decided her ministry would be in Assisi House. Sr. Angela began repairing and altering sisters’ clothes and used her sewing skills to make new altar cloths and curtains for the Assisi House Chapel. Soon she was also asked to make chapel flower arrangements. Wanting to do her best, as always, Sr. Angela took courses in flower design from Longwood Gardens. She continued sewing and arranging flowers for Assisi House until about six years ago.
Sr. Angela observes, “All my life I have been wearing so many hats.” Her wide-ranging creative ministry has continued, for example, for special events held by the Sisters of St. Francis Foundation. Until the Covid-19 pandemic, she prepared food for foundation events. Currently she creates special-event flower designs—as she will for the May 7, 2022, Franciscan Night, for which she will also decorate the silent-auction baskets. In addition to helping the foundation, Sr. Angela creates flower arrangements for Red Hill Farm’s annual Farm-to-Table Dinner. For feast days, she arranges the flowers for Our Lady of Angels Chapel, and she will also be designing the flowers for special Neumann University events held in the OLA Chapel.
Sr. Angela has not stopped sewing for others: “The sisters ask me to repair some of their clothes, such as shortening hems or altering the size; I make myself available to them. When I can do something by hand, I do it at night when we sit together in my unit in the living room. For machine sewing, I am in the process of making half the space in my flower room into a sewing corner. Both jobs require space, light, and tools—now I have these in the same room.” As for her talents in the kitchen, “I try to include some baking in my schedule— especially healthful cookies that I share with the other sisters. When I can squeeze it into my schedule, I make homemade bread, also without any artificial ingredients.”
Before the pandemic, Sr. Angela volunteered weekly at Riddle Hospital, visiting with patients and offering snacks and beverages to families in the waiting rooms. She continues to teach catechists at the Church of St. Joseph in Aston, for which she created her own program: “Many of the children I teach don’t really know who Jesus is or the evangelists—so how can they understand the Gospel? I show them that the Old Testament is like a map of the New Testament. I teach the children that our relationship with Jesus, with God, is like a dance. In a dance, the partners have to rely on each other, maintaining balance and trust. I teach the children that the movements the two dancers do is like the Holy Spirit—the embrace of one dancer with the other is the Father and the Son. A good dance is the fruit of the Holy Spirit.”
Sr. Angela also continues to learn. When she takes a break from her work or has quiet time at night, she listens by way of the internet to “beautiful programs in Italian that explain the Bible. I make sure I listen every night because you never finish learning the beauty of salvation history.”
Teaching children, creating magnificent arrangements with God’s glorious flowers, designing a Christmas crèche for Our Lady of Angels, making homemade bread and other delectable and sustaining foods, sewing for others: in all of these, Sr. Angela Frances Sutera adds to the world’s beauty and joy. As she has from childhood, she continues with generosity, dedication, and extraordinary creative gifts to bring loveliness to every day and special times for all those whose lives she touches.