Picture it — a nun in a hazmat suit. It’s a striking image, one that might even seem far-fetched, but if you know your Greenpoint history, you know that this actually happened. Sister Francis Kress, a local nun born and raised in New York City who served the Greenpoint community, once donned a suit and swam in the creek to prove a point about its danger to the community.
Even before her infamous stunt, Sister Francis always marched to the beat of her own drum — sometimes literally.
“When Al Smith ran for President against daunting odds, Francis, as ten-year-old Irene Kress, led her playmates through the streets of Holy Innocents parish banging pots and pans to get out the vote. At a time when “love of neighbor” generally went only as far as your ethnic and religious partners, Francis made best friends with a Jewish girl”According to the Congregation of St. Joseph, in Brentwood, NY.
“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,” wrote Greenpointers’ Geoff Cobb in 2017. Sister Francis learned about the spill from a city bus driver and took it upon herself to solicit input from Greenpoint locals, many of whom had stories to share and battle scars due to the environmental issues plaguing the area.
1978 was two years before Congress passed a law establishing the Superfund program, which allows the EPA to clean up toxic sites, and a whopping thirty-two years before Newtown Creek would earn the Superfund designation.
An excerpt from Alex Prud’homme’s 2011 book The Ripple Effect:
“With the help of sympathetic coastguardsmen, Sister Francis dressed herself in a hazardous-materials suit, climbed over barbed-wire fences into vacant lots and skirted packs of wild dogs to inspect the creek. The more she saw of it, the more concerned she became. But when church elders learned that she was agitating for a cleanup, she recalled, they immediately warned her to desist. ‘The church banished me from Greenpoint!’ Sister Francis declared in a loud voice when I visited her at a church-run nursing home on Long Island in 2007. She was 92 and wheelchair-bound, but recalled every detail of her mission to save Newtown Creek. Sister Francis continued her activism in secret, but even Greenpoint residents didn’t want her to ‘stir things up.’ Her efforts were largely met with stubborn disengagement. ‘I’ve never seen such a community. They still need to clean up my creek!’ she thundered, insisting that I call her Sister Newtown Creek, as some of her friends still do in Greenpoint. ‘Think of all the young families living there that could be polluted!’”Alex Prud’homme – The Ripple Effect
Sister Francis passed away in 2019 at age 104. She lived a long life of service and brought desperately needed attention to a major neighborhood issue before it was even on most people’s radar. Her legacy lives on through an award that North Brooklyn Parks Alliance gives out in her memory – the Sister Francis Kress Environmental Award.
I love her. We need more people like her.
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