In October 1963, Sister Lucia Ceccotti and 10 Sisters of St. Joseph Benedict Cottolengo, the order she entered at 18, came from Italy to found the Marian Center School for people with intellectual disabilities.
The nuns came at the behest of Miami’s first bishop, Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll, who knew about the order’s special-needs school and wanted to establish one like it, initially in Hollywood.
Ceccotti arrived with impressive credentials in nursing, teaching and Italian literature, and a Master of Science in administration and special education. She’d been a high school principal and held various leadership positions in her order, and of the group was the only one who spoke English..
“In October, 1963, I boarded a plane at Malpensa Airport in Milan, along with 10 other brave sisters, all of whom had never flown,” Ceccotti once told an archidiocesan publication. “It was painful to leave our families, friends and other sisters. This was a real giving of ourselves, completely throwing ourselves into God’s hands.”
Ceccotti remained involved with the center, now in Miami Gardens — the first Catholic school for the developmentally disabled in the southeastern United States — until shortly before her death on Tuesday at 93.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski said that Ceccotti, who lived on the school’s secluded, 50-acre campus, was admitted to Mercy Hospital about a month ago with intestinal problems and died at the hospital’s hospice unit.
“I feel like I’ve known her all of my life,’’ Wenski said. “She took on that task and ran that place on a shoestring budget. She has given great witness to the community of the dignity of those young people she has taken care of.’’
He said she was “feisty, and she was not imtinidated by anybody. She could hold her own with Archbishop Carroll and anyone else.... She had a stubbornness [rooted in] unshakable faith in divine providence. She knew God would take care of her and those children.’’
Ceccotti once described the center, which runs on grant money, as “a former barracks. It was full of mattresses, stoves and trash” when her nuns took it over.
Although the place is old, “you can go there and you’d almost say it’s so clean you can eat off the floor,” Wenski said. “It shows the touch of religious sisters, the love and concern and order they have.’’
The Marian Center operates a fully accredited school, an adult training center and a women’s residence, and provides therapy services for children and young adults with developmental, speech, occupational and physical disabilities.
Two of the original group of nuns remain on campus: Sister Paula Nofori and Sister Carla Valentini.
Sister Lydia Valli arrived in 1996 knowing she was about to meet “an amazing person’’ in Sister Ceccotti. “She had just retired for the first time, but she resumed two times after 1996 and was always was able to help the center to survive,’’ Valli said.
“She believed that all people with disabilities can learn and grow and she really used all the techniques and professional skills, but she really believed in being calm and organized, and preparing them for the routine of the day so they were not surprised or afraid.’’