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Spunky nun celebrates a landmark birthday; She is 8th oldest sister in the country at 105

Sister John Maron Abdella turns 105 years old today.

The inevitable question is, how has she lived so long? And for Abdella, the answer has nothing to do with healthy diet, regular exercise or a daily glass of red wine.

"I say, 'God, it's your fault, not mine. I didn't do anything to keep alive,' " she said.

The spunky nun, who doesn't use eyeglasses or a hearing aid and still gets around on her own two feet with a walker, will celebrate the landmark birthday with family on Wednesday in the Sisters of St. Joseph Residence on Strickler Road in Clarence.

Relatives will be traveling from Steubenville, Ohio, with a van full of Lebanese foods to mark the occasion of Abdella's birthdate of Aug. 15, 1906. The trek continues a tradition that began nearly 20 years ago with Abdella's nephew, Abi Bryan, and niece, Vicki Reynolds.

Both Bryan and Reynolds are now deceased, but Bryan's daughter, Becky, and her cousins, Elaine Cutrone, Lois Millanti and Janet Paluch, plan to keep bringing the birthday cheer -- along with the kibbeh, tabouli, grape leaves and other Lebanese specialties.

"We will do that as long as she's here," said Cutrone, Abdella's great-niece, adding that the family always looks forward to the visit.

Abdella is the oldest member of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Buffalo and one of the oldest nuns in the country.

The Retirement Fund for Religious, a national organization that raises money for the care of elderly nuns and brothers, doesn't officially track the ages of sisters around the country, but when it recently solicited information from religious communities about their eldest sisters, Abdella turned up as the eighth oldest. The two most senior nuns on the list were 106.

Abdella, who taught in area Catholic elementary schools for more than 60 years, hardly acts her age. Her eyes sparkle with a bit of acknowledged mischief, and her memory is razor sharp. She is quick with an opinion, a smile or an anecdote -- like the time Abdella asked her good friend, Sister Mary Margaret, why God was keeping her alive so long.

Abdella enjoys recounting how the other nun teased her by saying that God wasn't ready to cede his authority in heaven to Abdella upon her death.

"She has such a sense of humor and she loves being teased about things," said Cutrone, who speaks with her great-aunt on a weekly basis by telephone.

Abi Bryan in particular had a teasing rapport with Abdella that was golden, according to family members.

"What we loved the most was that she would come back with a reply that was hysterical," said Cutrone.

Abdella may have outlived her contemporaries, but she doesn't lack for company, even if they're from other generations.

Take, for example, Helen Neumeister, who renewed her acquaintance with Abdella about a year ago.

The pair first met in 1932, when Abdella was a third-grade teacher at St. Vincent de Paul School in Buffalo, and Neumeister was 8-year-old Helen Krebs.

Neumeister noticed a mention of Abdella in a Sisters of St. Joseph newsletter last year.

"Her name was in my memory very well," said Neumeister. "She was just a new teacher at that time."

Nearly eight decades later, Neumeister decided to stop by and see how Abdella was doing. She's been making regular visits ever since.

Neumeister, now 86 and preparing to be a great-grandmother for the first time later this year, brought a birthday cake to the Sisters of St. Joseph Residence on Friday.

Abdella doesn't typically celebrate her birthday on the actual date -- which is today -- because it coincides with the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a holy day of obligation on the Catholic calendar.

Abdella is a traditionalist in other respects, as well.

She's one of only a handful of Sisters of St. Joseph who still wear a veil and habit.

"I want to be known as a sister when I go out," she said.

And she continues to use the name given to her when she joined the community, while most of her colleague sisters long ago went back to their birth names.

"St. John Maron hasn't done anything to hurt my feelings, so I can't go back on him," she said, referring to the revered Lebanese saint, John Maron, who is her namesake.

Born Evelyn Abdella in Lebanon, she moved to Fredonia with her parents as a young girl and grew up with two brothers and four sisters -- all of whom are deceased now.

She felt called to the sisterhood while caring for a younger niece who had been blinded.

"I wanted to enter [the convent] when I was 18. My father and mother wouldn't give me permission," said Abdella. "My dad felt it was too hard of a life, and he didn't want me to enter."

But on Oct. 1, 1929, just a few weeks before the start of the Great Depression, Abdella entered the congregation.

At the time, she was one of 544 members, and for years afterward, the community received a dozen to 15 new members annually, Abdella recalled.

The inability of communities of women religious to replenish themselves now is "the only thing that's ever made me depressed," she said. "Without new blood, the community can't keep on going."

Abdella wanted to be a missionary sister and wasn't particularly fond of entering the teaching ranks as a young nun.

But she learned quickly that was her destiny. "The superior said, 'Evelyn, now remember this: If you're going to be a Sister of St. Joseph, you don't tell the superior what to do, the superior tells you what to do,' " Abdella recalled.

From then on, Abdella taught grammar school children at a variety of schools in Buffalo, Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda, Salamanca and Attica. She also taught at Our Lady of Victory orphanage for three years. She called it quits at age 85, after spending many years at St. Margaret's School on Hertel Avenue.

"She was an institution there. They just loved her," said Sister Carol McTigue, a colleague who was teaching at St. Margaret's at the same time.

Once an avid gardener, Abdella continues to maintain geraniums, impatiens, a cactus and even a rose bush in her cozy room at the residence, where she keeps a little black book of phone numbers, family pictures and a congratulatory letter with the seal of Pope Benedict XVI recognizing her 105th birthday.

As much as possible, she enjoys crocheting, usually blankets and caps and booties for infants that the sisters then sell.

"Her fingers are always going," said McTigue.

Abdella said she's slowed down some, often falling asleep after an hour or so of crocheting, then waking up again to resume her task. She doesn't read books much anymore, either, because her eyes get tired.

But she takes few medications and she has stayed relatively healthy otherwise.

"God has been very, very good to me," she said. "When I sit down and think of all of the other sisters in the house much younger than me laying in bed, I think, 'Why can't I thank God in the proper way?' "

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com