Retired nun hardly not working Sister Carmella Marie Christiano is known throughout the region for her good deeds.

Posted: October 28, 2007

Sister Carmella Marie Christiano knew early that she was almost surely heading for the religious life.

During a very brief period of uncertainty, she was looking for a sign just before she entered the convent. The native of Tenafly heard a young priest speak passionately about religious commitment. "That did it - I knew that was my sign," said the woman who has now spent 62 of her 80 years as a nun with the order of Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth.

A resident of Pemberton Township for the last two decades, Sister Carmella is known throughout the region for her nonstop good works, and in her retirement she continues to work tirelessly for causes.

But don't call the sister an "activist," a label she resists. "I am active in things that matter to me," she says staunchly.

Sister Carmella's life story is punctuated with adventures, even intrigue. After teaching young children as her first initiation into religious life, Sister Carmella became an advocate for youngsters in need.

By 1968, she was immersed in social work, beginning with a stint at the Hudson County Emergency Shelter in Jersey City. The feisty nun soon uncovered misappropriation of funds at the facility, and was responsible for the subsequent trial of the "Hudson Eight" in 1970, which ultimately landed a Jersey City mayor and all his council members in jail.

"I was too young and too dumb to be frightened, but actually, I was in the same peril as many whistle-blowers are. And I'd do it all again," Sister Carmella said.

Her love for children led Sister Carmella to create a corporation that established 18 child-care centers throughout the state in the 1970s and '80s, with centers in Hudson, Bergen, Middlesex and Burlington Counties. The business acumen she acquired led to her election as state president of the New Jersey Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, an organization in which she is still active.

When Sister Carmella opened a day-care center in Pemberton Township back in 1984, she also fell in love with the area and saw its potential as her retirement home. The day-care corporation bought her a retirement home in the Country Lakes section, but Sister Carmella had other plans for the house. "There was more space than I needed, so I started inviting underprivileged kids from North Jersey to spend summer weeks with me. Why shouldn't they enjoy the area, too?"

Since 1988, that same house has been incorporated as a nonprofit known as My Mother's House, where the nun opens her doors to the homeless for various periods of time. Her mission: to find the people jobs - and dignity - so that they can either move on, or at least become productive members of society.

"I realized that Atlantic City was a place where there were jobs, so I contacted the Trump organization," said Sister Carmella, who even met with The Donald himself. Trump was the first organization to hire her candidates, and then five other casinos followed suit.

Today, five people are living at My Mother's House, and all are making progress and are gainfully employed but are not yet financially stable enough to live on their own, reports Sister Carmella.

But there is still much work for her to do.

A look at Sister Carmella's date book - and her daunting schedule - is evidence that in retirement she has barely slowed down. She is a trustee or board member of numerous organizations, from the Deborah Foundation and Soroptimists International to Amici Della Lingua, a South Jersey language and cultural arts club that is dedicated to preserving the Italian heritage.

Sister Carmella has taught at Burlington County College in the Learning Is For Everyone (LIFE) program for adults, and she is currently working with seniors at the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Whiting as a coleader of its Body and Soul Club.

"I guess I take care of the soul, and my coleader, Marion Ariemma, who is 91 and a retired nurse, takes care of the body," Sister Carmella said.

Sister Carmella's fans are legion. Robert Messina, president of Burlington County College, calls her "amazing, awesome, and an altogether remarkable person."

"Every organization or town needs 100 Sister Carmellas," said Donna McArdle, director of Public Relations at Deborah Hospital. "She is one of the most devoted people I've ever known and she is a driving force in social justice."

Two former governors have agreed: Gov. Brendan Byrne appointed Sister Carmella as one of the first members of the New Jersey Commission on the Status of Women, and Gov. Thomas Kean reappointed her.

"I don't need material wealth," Sister Carmella said. "I am rich in other blessings. When it comes to what matters. I'm truly a millionaire."

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