Sister Marie Alice Lagace gathers with clergy and parishioners of Holy Family Church April 8 shortly before Mass. Shown standing behind her is pastor of Holy Family Parish, Father Tri Pham, and next to him is Father Michael Cairnes, parochial vicar. (LINDA REEVES|FC)

100 years young

PORT ST. LUCIE | There is a religious sister at one parish in Port St. Lucie who is somewhat of a celebrity these days and a superstar to many for years. And she is celebrating her centennial and her 77th year as a religious sister.

“We all love her and with joy will be celebrating her 100 years,” said Myrna Wong, longtime parishioner of Holy Family in Port St. Lucie, where Sister Marie Alice Lagace has called home for the past nearly 35 years and captured hearts. “She is an inspiration to all of us and loves the Catholic Church, going to Mass each and every day, and receiving the Eucharist. Her most loved words are, ‘Abba, I love you.’ She will say that over 100 times each day and has asked me to make sure that I do it too.”

Sister Lagace turns 100 May 9, but the celebrations have already begun, paying honor to her and all that she has done not only in her fascinating life and ministry, but also simply as she goes about day after day, walking her life path and evangelizing along the way through her actions, deeds and witness of living the Catholic faith.

Sister Lagace may never have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but as of April 17 she has a shiny plaque at Denny’s in Port St. Lucie. Management and staff presented Sister Lagace, one of their favorite customers, with the gift bearing her name and it is now displayed near the booth where she has eaten breakfast every weekday morning for the past 25 years. The gift was given to her during a little party, which included refreshments and a birthday cake.

Who is this “Mother Teresa of Port St. Lucie”? Marie Alice Lagace was born in Danielson, Connecticut, one of eight children. She and her sister, Imelda Lagace, 101, and living in Connecticut, outlived their parents and all their brothers and sisters.

As a teen, Sister Lagace felt called to the religious life of the Daughters of the Holy Spirit congregation. She entered the novitiate for formation at age 18 and professed final vows in 1941, becoming a religious sister. She introduced Imelda to the community, and she too joined the congregation, taking vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.

Sister Lagace, a high school cheerleader, president of the girls sports club, band drum majorette and member of the debating club, studied at Annhurst College, a private Catholic college in Connecticut; St. Joseph’s College in New York; Savannah State University in Georgia; and Hartford University in Washington, D.C. She earned degrees in education, science and guidance and counseling. Her ministry work began in New York, serving the poor and the inner-city’s children through various programs and ministries, and she taught school on all levels for 30 years.

After a great deal of prayer and discernment, her ministry took a twist and turn and then a giant leap when she heard God calling her to mission work. “My childhood dream came true,” she said. “I transferred from the Daughters of the Holy Spirit to join the African and World Apostolate. This permitted me to go to Africa.”

She left her former order with their blessings and prayers and entered the African and World Apostolate community in Washington, D.C., dedicated to helping the poor and undernourished people of Africa. In Cameroon, she joined members of her community and took final vows in 1970, beginning her work there.

Her ministry overseas for the next three years focused on serving the very poor and the abandoned. She ministered to the hundreds of lepers at the leprosy colony in Baleng, Cameroon, living in mud huts without running water or electricity. At the colony, she distributed medicine and clothes and interacted with people left alone. “The work with the people was gratifying,” she said. “What Christ-like joy I experienced working with these beautiful people.” She also taught at a seminary in Ghana and at Maya College in Kekem, Cameroon, serving as school principal.

After her mother became sick in 1973, Sister Lagace came back to the United States to care for her. For the next five years, she continued to work for the World Apostolate organization, helping recruit men and women for service in Africa. She also began studying centering prayer or contemplation and took classes at St. Joseph’s Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts. Her mother died in 1978.

Looking for a new ministry path, Sister Lagace came to Florida to begin her contemplative prayer initiatives. “At its peak, she had around 60 students,” said Jim Thoma, a parishioner and school teacher himself, who has taken Sister Lagace’s classes over the years at her home filled with teaching cards, displays and posters. “She teaches a women’s class and a men’s class.”

Thoma said Sister Lagace is an amazing educator in the classroom, and a very powerful speaker when it comes to silent prayer, a deep form of prayer life. Thoma has become a great devotee of Sister Lagace over the years. “She said her secret to long life is prayer and relaxing,” said Thoma. “She says the best prayer is, ‘Abba, I love you.’”

Sister Lagace has many fans and has won the hearts of parishioners and the parish pastor and priest. Parishioners keep an eye on her and support her and love her like a family supports and loves a mother or grandmother. Women of the parish take turns accompanying Sister Lagace to Mass and then breakfast at Denny’s, and apparently those who spend time with her get back much in return for their support of her.

“Her breakfast many times is all ready for her (when we arrive),” said Aleen Stanton, one of the women who shares time and coffee with Sister Lagace, who eats a poached egg and toast every morning. “Many times patrons at Denny’s will pay her bill anonymously. She talks to the patrons and tells them to smile and to love God.”

Over the years, Sister Lagace has taken an active role at Holy Family, serving as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion and a member of the Council of Catholic Women. There is even a special marker in the parish’s butterfly garden dedicated to her and bearing her name.
When asked to what does she attribute her longevity, she said, “Healthy eating and lifestyle and the holy Eucharist,” and graces obtained from her beloved Abba, God the Father.
“She is love,” said parishioner Bobbi Hilyard, among the women who attend Mass with Sister Lagace. “She is the most beautiful soul I have ever met.”