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Veteran Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart educator succumbs to fire injuries

A local nun critically injured in a Hertel Avenue apartment fire on Dec. 20 has died.

Sister Ruth M. Penksa, who served for many years as campus minister at Erie Community College’s City Campus and had taught college and high school Spanish, died Wednesday in the Burn Treatment Unit of Erie County Medical Center, where she was being treated for burns and smoke inhalation. She was 82.

The fire started in the living room of her longtime home on the 12th floor of the Marina Vista Apartments on Hertel Avenue, overlooking the Niagara River.

In a dramatic rescue, firefighters pulled her from the smoke and flames shortly after 10 p.m. on Dec. 20, and she was taken to ECMC. The cause of the fire is still under investigation. Fire officials said the blaze resulted in $150,000 damage to the property and contents.

Sister Ruth was a member of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, the congregation of sisters responsible for starting D’Youville College and the former Holy Angels Academy. She had served at both institutions, primarily teaching Spanish. She also taught and served as principal of Immaculate Conception School in Eden.

Sister Ruth lived alone in the one-bedroom apartment. The congregation’s local presence has dwindled to about 15 women, who were shocked by Sister Ruth’s death.

“She loved Buffalo,” said Sister Patricia Connolly, also a Grey Nun. “She was a true educator, and then she got involved in campus ministry and she loved that. She had a very good rapport with her students there.”

Sister Ruth retired from her work at ECC in 2007, but remained very active in the community. She organized a Bible study through Assumption Church, and hosted it for up to a dozen people in the Marina Vista community room.

She used a walker to get around, but it hardly limited her mobility.

“She’d fold up the walker and put it in the backseat and there she’d go,” said Connolly.

She also drove regularly to Niagara University to take a philosophy course. On Sundays, she usually picked up two parishioners on the way to Mass at Assumption Church. She volunteered as a reader for the Niagara Frontier Radio Reading Service for the Blind.

“She enjoyed being independent,” said Sister Sheila Stone, a Grey Nun. “She had very strong opinions, and she was a woman of very deep faith.”

Stone said Sister Ruth was heavily sedated and not conscious while at ECMC, so she was not able to communicate about how the fire may have started.

“We haven’t gotten the fire report yet,” said Stone.

A Buffalo native, Sister Ruth was a graduate of Riverside High School and D’Youville. She entered the Grey Nuns in 1967. In 2010, she wrote a book, “The Scoop on Ruth,” that provided a lighthearted look into her life experiences in teaching, ministry and working as a sales clerk. She self-published her second book, “Finding God in the Rubble of Numbers,” in 2013.

A staunch pro-life advocate, Sister Ruth regularly participated in the National Life Chain event on Niagara Falls Boulevard and joined a local group for the March for Life in Washington, D.C. She just recently completed an annual retreat at Stella Niagara, said Connolly.

Connolly last spoke with Sister Ruth just hours before the fire. The two had plans to attend a penance service that evening, but they opted against it because of high winds blasting across Buffalo, Connolly said.

Sister Ruth is survived by two brothers, Thomas and Michael.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday in Assumption Church, 435 Amherst St.

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