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Betteann McDermott (formerly, Sr Mary Noelita)

List of Deceased Sisters

Date of Death 05/05/2014

Elizabeth Anne McDermott was born in New York Cityon April 12th, 1933, one of three daughters of Ann Ready McDermott and James Vincent McDermott, both native New Yorkers. As a young girl Betteann was attracted to the religious and missionary life and was helped in her discernment by a Jesuit priest at FordhamUniversity. She entered the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary in Bedford, Massachusettson July 31st, 1951.  In the novitiate she took the name Sr. Mary Noelita (for St. Noel Chabanel, the youngest of the French Jesuit North American Martyrs).

After her first vows in 1954, Sister was sent to FraminghamStateTeachers’ Collegeand obtained her BSc in Education.  After some months of community service, Sr Mary Noelita set off for Fijiand was teaching at the StellaMarisPrimary Schoolin Suvaby February 1958.  She recently wrote of those early experiences at Stella Maris, reminding us that the school, at that time, grades 1-4, was entirely housed in the small cottage that presently serves as the school office.  The sisters slept there, too, and folded up their beds every morning to make room for classes.  She wrote: “I remember drawing lines on the inside of used Christmas cards since we were saving money to build the school.”

After 4 years in Suva, Sr Noelita was sent to the beautiful islandof Taveuni.  A year later she was needed in the faraway islandof Rotuma– a place with a different language and culture, whose people she grew to love.  In 1966, she returned to Suvaand taught at the FijiChineseSchooland in 1968 was sent to St Joan of ArcSchoolin Sigatoka.  Towards the end of that year, she left early for her home visit because her father was dying.  After spending time with the family in New York, she participated in the “Second Novitiate” held in Rhinebeck, NY.

Sr Noelita remained in the USAthrough 1969 and most of 1970, as she helped in the preparation of the first Provincial Chapter of the North American Province and was elected as a delegate to it.

As she prepared to return to Fiji, she asked for and was granted the opportunity to go to Indiato study Hindustani for several months. The Provincial Chapter for the South Pacific had affirmed that as missionaries our congregation ought to have a more direct presence to the Indian community in Fiji, which at that time comprised more than half the population.  Noelita began her Hindi study in India, then continued on her return to Fiji.

In 1971 Sr Noelita was the first SMSM to teach at HolyFamilyPrimary Schoolin Labasa. Finally in 1974, after further Hindi study in Suva, she became the pioneer of our SMSM presence in Naleba, a large Indian village then – mostly Hindu, some Muslim, and a small Catholic community.  At first she lived with a widow, Agnes, in the village.  Later, when Sr Frances Hardiman joined her, they were given teachers’ quarters at the NalebaSecondary Schoolwhere they taught.  Together with a succession of Columban Fathers, Srs Noelita and Frances, and later Srs Bertha Hurley and Virginia Fornasa, worked to strengthen the faith of the Catholic community, while participating in the “dialogue of life” with the Hindu and Muslim people.  As residents of the village and teachers of the children they were welcomed in many homes in this rural, cane-farming community.

Sr Noelita returned to the USAin late 1976 in poor health.  When she returned to Fijia year later she was assigned to teach at WairikiSecondary Schoolin Taveuni.  In 1980 she was back in Labasa, teaching at Holy Family, but by the end of 1980, she returned to the USAdefinitively. 

Sr Mary Noelita’s missionary work was far from over.  In order to prepare herself for parish ministry in the USA, she studied for her Masters Degree in Religious Education at FordhamUniversity. In 1982 she was assigned to our community in Memphis, Tennessee, and became an Associate on the parish team at St Patrick’s Parish.  St Patrick’s was a very dynamic, multi-racial community, with a great outreach to the poor, and Sr Noelita began to form friendships there that have lasted more than 30 years. 

Seeing the needs of the poor in Memphis, Noelita felt the need to have more “tools” to help them, so she began studying, part-time, for her Masters in Social Work, which she obtained from the Universityof Tennesseein 1988.

In 1989 Sr Noelita participated in a spiritual renewal program at Sangre de Cristo in New Mexico. Afterwards she prepared herself for yet another pioneering effort – this time she was in the first group of our Sisters to be missioned among the Spanish-speaking people of South Texas.

It was a theme of Sr Betteann’s life: seeing the need for the Church to reach out to a group of people, preparing herself by study, and then launching out into a new world, wherever she was sent by the congregation.  During her years in the Brownsvillearea, she became qualified as a hospital chaplain and served in that capacity at KnappHospitalin Weslaco, and ValleyBaptistHospitalas well as the StateHospitalin Harlingen.  At some point she reverted to her baptismal name and became known as Sr Betteann McDermott.

Finally, Sr Betteann returned to Memphisin 2000, and had remained there ever since. Since 2005 she had been working as Director of the HIV AIDS program with the Sacred Heart Southern Mission, based in Mississippi. The two SMSM communities in Memphiswere closed by 2011, but Sr Betteann asked to remain and continue her ministry for as long as she was able.  Living in an apartment in Memphis, where she still had the support of the friends she had made over the years, she travelled every day to Mississippi, bringing love, food, and care to so many rural poor, especially those afflicted with AIDS.


The funeral Mass at St Patrick’s, held four days after her sudden death from a massive heart attack, was a joyful celebration of her life.  The church was crowded with people of all races and walks of life who shared some wonderful memories.  Her body was cremated and the ashes brought to Waltham, where on Saturday, June 7th, about 35 members of her family gathered with the Sisters for a memorial Mass that once again became a celebration of this generous and loving woman who knew so well how to “ forget herself in loving Christ” (C.51) -especially in the poorest and most forgotten.  May she rest in peace!

In Mary,

Sr Claire Rheaume smsm                                                                 Sr Virginia Fornasa smsm

Regional Leader                                                                                Communications Secretary