Sister Francis Gerard Kress who Greenpointers profiled last year in its series on important local women passed away on January 17th in Brentwood, Long Island. She was 104 years old and was a nun for an amazing 87 years. Sister Francis, a beloved local figure, taught for many years at the Saint Anthony of Padua school (862 Manhattan Ave.), but it was her work as one of the first local environmentalists that is perhaps her greatest local legacy.
The future activist was born in Hells Kitchen in 1914 and by age ten she had already organized her first protest, a pot and pan demonstration of local children in favor of the first Catholic presidential candidate. She joined the Sisters of Saint Joseph in 1932 and became an elementary school educator. In the 1960s, she arrived in Greenpoint, teaching local children who loved her charisma and energy in the classroom. In those days, Greenpoint was severely polluted with local residents at the time enduring a shockingly high cancer rate, but few locals knew the extent of the environmental damage.
In 1977, a plume appeared in Newtown Creek, the first evidence of a 15 million gallon oil slick that poisoned the surrounding earth. That same year Sister Francis, learning from a city bus driver about the spill, began to make inquiries among local residents. Discovering that almost everyone had a story about the black mayonnaise that oozed in Newtown Creek, she also learned about the spiking local cancer rate. She recalled that toxic fumes stained people’s clothes drying on the line outside and that it gave them headaches and made their children agitated, but locals simply lived with these dangers, but 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 and she began to raise environmental and health issues with the local Community Board, demanding answers to the troubling questions about the dangerous health consequences of the massive oil plume. The politicians ignored her, but she was relentless. “They told me I was a nuisance,” she said,“but I have viking blood and decided to look into it anyway.”
Kress was determined to fight for the community’s health, but when church superiors learned of her activism, they immediately warned her to stop, yet she continued to fight. In those years the environmental movement did not enjoy the widespread support it does today. 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!
Today after Exxon has settled a multi-million dollar lawsuit, Greenpoint is keenly aware of the environmental issues it still faces and Sister Francis played a huge part in creating this awareness.