109-year-old Sister Evelyn Hurley reflects on her South Boston upbringing, ministry

BRAINTREE -- When Sister of Charity of Nazareth Evelyn Hurley was born in South Boston on March 7, 1915, Woodrow Wilson had been president of the United States for four days. Benedict XV was pope. World War I had been raging in Europe for less than a year. Women in Massachusetts were not allowed to vote in most elections. Horses still carried sleds of ice through the streets of South Boston, delivering it to homes with the ice boxes that were common before the days of refrigeration. One day, Sister Evelyn saw one of the horses slip and fall.

"The poor horse couldn't get up," Sister Evelyn, now 109, told The Pilot in a March 8 Zoom interview. "It broke my heart to see that great big horse down on the ground and not able to get up."

Sister Evelyn has carried that compassion through her 90 years of religious life, 45 of which were spent as a teacher at St. Brigid School in South Boston (now South Boston Catholic Academy).

"It's not just the people that Sister Evelyn Hurley has taught," Sister of Charity of Nazareth Luke Boiarski told The Pilot. "It's the people that she visited in the hospitals, on the streets. Everybody that has come in contact with Sister Evelyn has been impressed by her, and she brings that spirit of Christ, that love and compassion of Christ, to all those people she meets."

"Sister Evie," as she is affectionately known, celebrated her 109th birthday at the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Motherhouse in Nazareth, Kentucky, on March 7. The occasion was celebrated with Mass in the chapel and a celebratory meal in the refectory. She received 159 birthday cards and eight bouquets of flowers.

"It doesn't feel any different than I felt 20, 30 years ago," Sister Evelyn said about being 109. "I don't have a single pain or ache, and I feel great, thank God."

She is the second-oldest religious sister in the U.S. (The oldest is Sister Francis Piscatella of the Sisters of St. Dominic of Amityville, New York, who celebrates her 111th birthday in April). The secret to Sister Evelyn's longevity eludes even her.

"I certainly don't know if there was any secret or anything to it," she said. "I have done nothing but live my life as I have always lived it. And I take things as they come."

The oldest of five children born to prominent Boston City Councilman William Francis Hurley, Sister Evelyn grew up in a house without electricity.

"I remember in the bathroom there was this green gas meter," Sister Evelyn said. "And you had to make sure you had plenty of quarters to put in. You put a quarter in, and that would give you so much gas."

She described her childhood as a normal one, growing up in an area of South Boston with a large Lithuanian and Polish population. Although she has seen the population change from large families to young professionals without children, she still thinks the neighborhood is "a wonderful place to live."

She recalled going to the beach, having lunch with her family, and celebrating her First Communion 102 years ago. Every year, she marched in the May Procession wearing a white dress and black stockings.

Her parents were quick to adapt to the latest technology. The Hurleys got their first radio when Sister Evelyn was a very little girl, back when it was a newfangled invention. She remembered her amazement when her family first got a television set. They would eagerly wait for programming to start at 5 p.m. each night. She is equally amazed by today's technology.

Sister Evelyn's family was spared the ravages of the Great Depression, and hers was the life of a typical teenage girl of that era. She would go out on dates and hang out with her friends, sometimes spending all night enjoying the "amusements" at Revere Beach. She attended high school at St. Brigid's, then known as Nazareth Academy. That was where she first met the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, and was inspired by one of her teachers, Sister Helen Constance of Lexington, Kentucky.

Sister Evelyn graduated from Nazareth in 1932. That September, she joined the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, making her final decision three weeks before she moved to their home in Kentucky.

"My parents and friends were absolutely stunned that I would be taking a move like that," she said.

Religious life in Kentucky was a far cry from Boston, with its urban pace and countless historic sites. Sister Evelyn had never been that far from her family before.

"It was very, very hard," she said. "And I was extremely homesick."

Once, when her parents came to visit her in Kentucky, she cried after saying goodbye to them. An older sister came to comfort her. Sister Evelyn explained that every time she said goodbye to her parents, she feared that she would never see them again.

"You will see them in Heaven," the older sister replied.

At the time, this only made Sister Evelyn more upset.

Despite the initial hardships, she got to know her fellow sisters, and remembered them as "wonderfully welcoming."

The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth had a busy routine in the 1930s. They woke up every morning at 4:30 a.m., got dressed, prayed, and attended Mass before breakfast. Laundry duty was a common chore.

"That laundry was a busy place," Sister Evelyn said. "I can still see that long mangle (wringer), and in those days, there would always be someone sitting up there with the mangle and mangling all the sheets."

She became a Catholic school teacher in 1934, teaching in Kentucky and Mississippi before returning to South Boston in 1950, where she taught generations of children and "enjoyed every minute" of it.

"I totally enjoyed every single student that I ever taught," she said. "There was something special about each one. Each was different, but I loved every one of them."

While she was teaching at St. Brigid's, the Second Vatican Council removed the requirement for Sister Evelyn to wear a habit, which she had done since the 1930s. She welcomed the change.

"I wasn't crazy about wearing a habit," she said.

The habits were not washed every day or even every week. On rainy days, the bottom of her habit would become "wet and grimy" along with her shoes.

"I don't have good memories about that," she said.

She retired from teaching in 1995 at age 80 and lived at the St. Brigid Convent before moving back to Kentucky in 2014 at age 99.

"I hope that, through my teaching, I have accomplished something for the students that I've taught," she said.

Her routine nowadays is quite different than it was in the 1930s. For starters, Mass comes after breakfast. Sister Evelyn wakes up every morning at 7:30 a.m., eats, and takes a nap before going to Mass. She then has lunch, takes another nap, and socializes with her fellow sisters or writes letters to friends and acquaintances. After dinner, she typically goes right to bed.

Sister Evelyn likes all of the food served in the refectory, but for as long as she has lived in Kentucky, she has never eaten seafood there. She knows it won't be as good as what she had in Boston.