The telephone rang again and again Friday in Room 202 at the Sisters of St. Joseph residence in Clarence. Each time the small woman with the black veil picked up the receiver, she pressed a green button to magnify the sound.
“Sister John Maron speaking,” said the woman, who on Friday became the 86th person in the United States to turn 108, according to local gerontologist Dr. Robert Stall.
Sister John Maron Abdella celebrated her birthday with phone greetings from Lima, Peru; visits from grand nieces bearing homemade Lebanese food and the customary orchid, her favorite flower.
This feisty former school teacher, who retired at age 85, is here today for several reasons that she is happy to detail.
“There is nothing that we do or that we are allowed to do that’s hard on a life,” she said. “No drinking alcohol. No running around with one boy one day and another boy another day. No going to movies to midnight. We don’t get any of that stuff. We get good meals, not fattening meals, that are a balanced diet.”
Abdella is the oldest member of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Buffalo. According to the Retirement Fund for Religious, she is clearly one of the oldest nuns in the country.
She belongs to the fastest-growing age group (percentage-wise) in this country – those 85 and older, Stall noted. They will continue to be the fastest-growing group in the U.S. for the next 40 years.
“Certainly the lifestyle and the fact that she does not smoke or drink excessively factors into her longevity,” Stall said. “Plus, people who are married and stay married and people who are single tend to live longer than others. Having a positive life of peace with a relatively small degree of stress all seem to have very positive effects on life as you live it, but it also increases the length of your life.”
Stall, a geriatrician, this year is working for a local HMO conducting home assessments for more than 7,000 seniors in Western New York. He said that in 1900, the average life expectancy for men and women in this country was 47 years. Today, it is 78.7.
“I had a patient who lived to be 109,” Stall said. “The thing that most struck me is she had an uncle who served in the Civil War.”
The former Evelyn Abdella was born in Lebanon and moved to this country as a child, settling with her family in Fredonia. She recalled being “a naughty girl” to her parents.
“I did what I wanted , and they could not change me. I was stubborn,” she said.
When she was 23, she entered the convent .
“My mother and father didn’t want me to enter, but I had wanted to since I was 18,” she said. “They wouldn’t give in. I know where I got my stubbornness from.”
Abdella is the last living member of her immediate family, which included two brothers and four sisters. Today, she counts 250 relatives, noting that one brother had nine children, who were all married with children.
Abdella – who taught at primary grade levels in a number of grammar schools in Attica, Niagara Falls and Buffalo – retired, in part, because of her frustration over the behavior of children.
“If I could teach the parents first, I could then teach their children,” she said. “It’s the parents’ fault that the little ones are the way they are. They don’t obey at home. They answer their parents back. That’s topsy-turvy. That’s wrong.”
She sits in a recliner near a window that is framed in flowers and plants. Hanging on the wall above her bed is last year’s framed birthday blessing from Pope Francis. She said it replaced one from Pope Benedict XVI that blessed her 105th birthday. On a table is her private stash of candy that fills a canister that marked her 100th birthday.
Visitors can’t leave the room without being invited to dip in.
When her 17-inch flat-screen is on, it’s more than likely tuned to Channel 10, where Mother Angelica programs play like a marathon.
“I don’t listen to her because I don’t like her voice. It isn’t pleasant to me,” Abdella said. “But she has some very good people talking on her program.”
Abdella looks forward to joining the ranks of “supercentenarians” – people who are over the age of 110 – but for now she’s happy greeting the parade of visitors to her modest second-floor room.
“I’m sitting here all day long and they’re coming in and out as if we’re on Main and Hertel,” she said.