Today almost all the local people know about the massive pollution of Newtown Creek and the oil plume that sits under Greenpoint, but it was not always so. One of the first fighters for the local environment was a Catholic nun—Sister Francis Gerard Kress. Born and raised in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen in 1914, all her life Kress was a fighter and a protester. At age ten she organized a pot banging demonstration of local children in support of Al Smith’s bid for the presidency, but her biggest protests were yet to come.
In 1978 our community learned that there was a massive oil plume polluting the area and there were millions of gallons of oil in the local aquifer and an area of fifty-five acres saturated Greenpoint with dangerous remnants of the oil refining, which once was the area’s leading industry. That same year Sister Francis learned from a city bus driver about the spill and she began to ask people in the neighborhood about the oil plume under the ground here. Surprised to learn that almost everyone had a story about the black mayonnaise that oozed in Newtown Creek,she also learned about the inordinate numbers of locals who developed cancer. “Toxic fumes stained their clothes drying on the line outside,” she recalled. “It gave people headaches and made children agitated, but they learned to live with it.” She was determined to take action.
With the help of sympathetic coastguardsmen, the then 65-year-old Sister Francis dressed herself in a hazmat suit, climbed over barbed-wire fences into vacant lots, braving packs of wild dogs to inspect the creek. She realized that the area was an environmental disaster. She began to raise environmental and health issues with the local Community Board, demanding answers to the troubling questions about the health implications of the massive oil plume. The politicians ignored her, but she persisted. “They told me I was a nuisance,” she said. “But I have Viking blood and decided to look into it anyway.” Kress knew that there were serious health implications to the spill, but when church elders learned of her activism, they immediately warned her to stop, but she continued to fight. Members of her convent started to refer to her as TM—troublemaker. In fact, she became such a trouble maker that the church eventually banished her from Greenpoint!
Sister Kress passed away in 2013 at age ninety-nine, but thanks in large part to her lead, the local environmental movement was born. She was a visionary and a woman far ahead of her time. She is remembered as one of the pioneers in the local environmental movement and our community should be grateful for the pugnacious sister who fought to clean up Newtown Creek.