A Tribute to Sister Mary Franciscus

Sister Mary Franciscus was born and raised in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. After completing high school, Sister Mary entered the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy. She earned her B.A. at St. Francis College and then attended Brooklyn College where she received two Masters, one in Education and the second in Supervision and Administration.

Sister Mary taught at the elementary and junior high school levels for many years. In 1971, she became the principal of St. Agatha’s Elementary School in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. Under her leadership, the once failing Catholic elementary school began to flourish. Registration increased dramatically to the point that there was a waiting list for admission into almost every grade.

Sr. Mary with a graduating trainee(2nd photo)

During this time, she also served as Chairperson of the Youth Committee of Community Board 7. It was in this capacity that she was instrumental in developing the idea for Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow (OBT), a comprehensive job training/placement program and GED program to service the underprivileged youth in the community.

In December 1983, Sister Mary and two long-time associates from St. Agatha’s opened the doors to OBT. The program, housed in a small, run-down storefront on 53rd Street and Fourth Avenue, quickly exceeded all their dreams and expectations. OBT was a huge success in getting young people off the streets, out of the criminal justice and welfare systems and into productive and responsible jobs in the clerical field – positions they could continue to grow in. The only obstacles faced by Sister and her staff in the coming years were the size and condition of the training site and their feeling of dismay when applicants over the age of 21 had to be turned away. At the time, OBT’s funding was restricted to serving only youth.

Sister Mary Franciscus at OBT's original location in Sunset Park (first photo)

After years of writing and years of searching, Sister Mary’s newest goals were reached. She located a new training site on 27th Street and Fourth Avenue – a former youth center which was renovated into a professional building, complete with offices and training rooms emulating those in the corporate world. She was also able to open these new doors to adults, who were even more desperately in need of training and employment that the youth. The Adult Program was as great a success as the Youth Program. In fact, the two groups seemed to help each other. Still, Sister Mary felt that she was not serving enough of the needy in the community.

In 1995, she started the Learn in the Evening Program (LITE), which allowed workers of the community to take classes in Computer, GED and English as a Second Language during the evening hours.

In 1997, Sister Mary received The Robin Hood Foundation’s Hero Award and the New York City Department of Employment’s Award of Excellence. In 1998, Sister received an Honorary Mention from the Brook Russell Astor Foundation.

A few years later, in 1999, she started a free daytime program of GED and ESL that was aimed at immigrant mothers with school age children. Sister Mary insisted that the program run during normal school hours so that these women could learn without the added pressure of child care.

As the millennium approached, Sister threw her boundless energy into a new project: opening a replication program in the Williamsburg-Bushwick community, an area that sorely lacked the unique services OBT provides. Despite many misgivings from her staff, Sister went ahead with this plan, eventually winning staff members over with her optimism and drive. After 18 months of hard work, OBT’s second site opened its doors to the youth of northeastern Brooklyn in July, 2001. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Sister lavished praise on her staff and supporters for bringing this project to a successful finish; in reality, it was Sister’s unique gift for doing the impossible that brought it to fruition.

Yet another honor was bestowed upon Sister Mary’s program in September 2002. As one of only 19 job training programs chose nationwide, OBT received the prestigious PEPNet Award. This is sponsored by the National Youth Employment Coalition in Washington, D.C. and is given to acknowledge excellence in leadership, services, workforce development, youth development, and results.

Sister Mary spent the next few years fine-tuning and adding to the services provided by OBT. With little warning, however, Sister was diagnosed with an illness in January 2005 that proved to be her greatest challenge. A lesser person would have given up, but Sister Mary battled bravely, showing all of us the true meaning of courage. On July 27, after months of enduring this terminal disease without complaint or bitterness, Sister Mary passed away.

Sr. Mary Francicus Way Street Dedication Ceremony (cropped)

There are no words powerful enough to describe the void she left; however her legacy lives on in the thousands of lives she touched and the thousands more she will continue to touch through the program she started over 30 years ago. Sister Mary Franciscus shared her wisdom, compassion and good humor with all who were fortunate enough to know her. She was a true hero will live in our hearts forever.