Second to nun

Deacon Tom Picciano
SUN Contributing writer

Binghamton — Sister Kathleen Duncan, CSJ knew she wanted to be a nun in fourth grade. It was in 8th Grade at St. Patrick’s School that a young Sister Thomas Leo helped guide her on the path to becoming a sister.

“When I was 21 I thought I was very old,” she said. “I had 72 or 73 kids in one grade. And in those days those kids listened.”

Sister Kathleen’s assignments have taken her to the Albany and Syracuse Dioceses. The resume includes work in speech and hearing. She also taught at St. Anthony‘s in Endicott, and was principal of Christ the King in Endwell. From 1980-86, Sister Kathleen was Area Superintendent Catholic Schools of Broome County, at the time the third largest school system in the county. She wore many hats, while public school superintendents had others to see to things like curriculum or personnel.

“When I used to go to the superintendents’ meeting, a woman tried to tell me not to go in because it was all men then,” she added.

Sister Kathleen moved on to a position with the Sisters of St. Joseph Council for New York and California. That’s when an invitation came from Father Robert Bogan, then pastor at St. Mary of the Assumption in downtown Binghamton. There was an empty convent on Fayette Street that the parish council wanted to put to use again.

When Msgr. Paul Brigandi took over the parish, Sister Kathleen met with him to discuss an outreach center for the neighborhood. With $90-thousand from the Sisters of St. Joseph, and Sister Kathleen as director, Samaritan House began in 1997.

It wasn’t an easy start. “The wiring was rotted, plumbing was gone, the walls were black, the floors were filthy,” she said.

Sister Kathleen sought the help of volunteers for a board to approach foundations for funds to repair the building. They first served mostly immigrants to the area. Now Samaritan House serves not only residents in the drug and poverty-plagued area, but also people from surrounding communities.

Samaritan House is open four days a week providing furnishings, children’s clothing, personal hygiene products, cleaning products and support for people in need. Donors provide items and money to keep the agency operating.

“So many of the women that we see come in here were kids when they had kids,” said Sister Kathleen. “I don’t know how the kids survive. They don’t have family and they don’t have supports and they don’t have somebody to help them. So they are constantly moving from one awful home to another.”

At the end of the month, Sister Kathleen will retire. “I would love to stay. The people are wonderful, great, great spirit, but at some point you move on and somebody new will come in,” she said. There are about 100 volunteers at Samaritan House. “One of these people could run the place.”

Volunteer Joe Lomonaco said sister’s retirement will mean an adjustment
“That’s going to be a change that we’ll all have to live with.” he said. “It’s been nice to work with sister. She’s been supportive of things we want to do and she’s the leader of the pack when we try to help people.”

“It’s going to be hard,” said volunteer Karen Anderson. “We tell her, ‘You need to volunteer someplace when you retire. Maybe come in here half a day a week.’”

Kathleen Bennett, who has been a Samaritan House volunteer since 1998, said it’s very rewarding to help people. Bennett believes Sister Kathleen leaves a good legacy.
“We are an organization of caring and love and I don’t see that changing.”

Sister Kathleen spoke highly of the volunteers’ gifts.

“A lot has to be done and a lot of people need help. I was just fortunate to be able to do what I did,” she said. She also had a few words of advice to the next Samaritan House director: “Treat everybody with kindness. Treat everybody with respect.”

And for a fourth grader just starting to think about becoming a nun or priest, “I would tell them to go forth, not to lose that thought to look into other things to get some experience. To keep their hearts open, their minds open.”

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