“I am just doing God’s work,” Sister Eustace Caggiano would say as she gathered groceries for an immigrant family or found fresh clothes for a homeless man.
Many of the thousands she served spoke no English.
Others struggled with alcoholism and addiction. For all, the Cardinal Cushing Resource Center she ran in Boston was a sanctuary from hunger and hardship, the place where Sister Eustace became known as the Saint of the South End.
Even after the Boston Archdiocese sold the Washington Street building that housed the center a dozen years ago and ended that chapter in her ministry, she continued visiting the elderly and the ill well into her 90s, until age and her own failing health intruded.
Sister Eustace was 102 when she died Saturday in Bethany Health Care Center in Framingham, some 80 years after entering the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston.
“She exemplified love,” said her longtime friend Marty Murphy, a former nun who was known as Sister Mary when she worked with Sister Eustace at the resource center years ago. “She had a God-given wisdom of people, of their needs. If they were brokenhearted, desperate, she knew how to help them.”
An immigrant at the center once referred to Sister Eustace as “the Mother Teresa of the South End.” The two women renowned for their tireless charity met in 1976, when the nun from Calcutta visited Boston. “Mother told me then that we don’t have to go to another country to help the poor, but that we would find the needy right here at home,” Sister Eustace told the Globe in 1997.
She didn’t have to look far. In the early 1960s, the Rev. Ernest Serino began welcoming Cuban refugees into what was then called the Cardinal Cushing Spanish Speaking Center. Sister Eustace was living across the street, in the convent next to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, doing the cooking and domestic work for sisters in her order who were teaching at Cathedral High School.
“It was Father Serino who suggested that I come to work at the center,” she said in 1997, “so I went there in-between my chores.” He recruited her to work there full time by the early 1970s, when many in religious orders were stepping away from traditional roles in convents and schools.
“It’s a new way of life for me. I feel as though I’m fulfilling myself by helping others,” Sister Eustace told the Globe in 1971.
“All we could do before was pray for people in trouble,” she added. “Prayer is good, but going to someone who needs you is even better.”
Born Phyllis Caggiano in 1913, she and her three brothers were young children in East Boston when their parents died. Though the siblings stayed in touch, all four went to stay with different relatives, and she was only 4 when she was sent to Medford to be raised by Helen DiBenedetto Cagno, a young aunt.
In 1935, at 22, she entered the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Boston. For a quarter of a century she was a nun at several parishes, usually working as a cook, until arriving in 1961 at the convent next to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. At first she invited the Spanish-speaking children of immigrants onto the convent’s grounds to shield them from the danger of playing on busy Washington Street. When one child was hungry, she fed him, taking a step toward the ministry that would fill her life for decades.
“She had a sensitivity for everybody, for whatever their individual needs were,” said Murphy, who lives in Canton. “She had insight that no education could prepare you for. That was her special gift.”
As Sister Eustace became more involved with the Cushing center, first as a volunteer and later as director, she began seeking donations of clothing, and holding rummage sales and Christmas bazaars, the proceeds helping families find housing or pay school tuition.
She learned Spanish because so many newcomers in the 1960s and ’70s were from countries such as Cuba and Puerto Rico. Over the years, a chorus of languages filled the center as immigrants found their way there from Poland and the Soviet Union, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.
“Even if you just help one family, it makes you feel so good about it,” Sister Eustace told the Globe in 1995, so she assisted new arrivals from Bosnia, Brazil, Cambodia, Haiti, Somalia, and Vietnam. Though fluent only in English, Italian, and Spanish, she communicated warmly and easily with all who visited the center.
“Her life was so full and so rich and she touched so many people, and did so much with so little fanfare,” said Chris DiMeo of Arlington, whose mother, Elizabeth DiMeo of Beverly, is Sister Eustace’s cousin. Another cousin, Patricia Pineau, lives in Wilmington.
Sister Eustace “had a very deeply rooted peacefulness about her,” DiMeo added. “She always was purposeful. She always knew what she was doing and why she was doing it. She sometimes lived among criminals and alcoholics and drug addicts and people who were mentally ill, and nothing rattled her cage. No one who knew her will ever say they saw her angry or frustrated.”
When Sister Eustace spoke out, it was to defend those attacked by others. She might wade into a fight between teenagers on a sidewalk to quell the violence, or raise her voice if anyone criticized the presence of immigrants. Pointing out that her mother was born in Italy, “I say: ‘Where did your grandmother come from?’ ” she told the Globe in 1992.
Although governors honored Sister Eustace over the years and Stonehill College conferred an honorary degree in 2000, “when she received awards, she would put them in a closet,” Murphy said.
Near the end, when her voice was barely a whisper, Murphy added, she was still expressing love for others.
A funeral Mass will be said for Sister Eustace at 10:30 a.m. Friday in Holy Spirit Chapel at the Bethany Health Care Center in Framingham, where she moved in her late 90s. Burial will be in St. Stephen Cemetery in Framingham.
“She always had an aura of grace about her, everywhere she went. Even around the dinner table on Sundays, she always was glowing with joy,” said DiMeo, who added that when Sister Eustace was with her extended family, everyone called her Mimi.
Emboldened by hip and knee replacements, and by her sustaining faith, Sister Eustace was still climbing stairs in the resource center in her mid-80s as if she was decades younger.
“The Lord must want me to be here,” she said.Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@ globe.com.