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.’’
If a child proved unsuitable for the program, Ceccotti would help the parents find an alternative, Valli said.
“She did a lot of networking with other agencies.’’
Ceccotti was already in the hospital when school started on Aug. 19, so she left a letter for the entire Marian Center community.
“She asked everybody to behave and work hard to grow and to learn,’’ Valli said.
David Lawrence Jr., who wrote about Ceccotti when he was publisher of the Miami Herald in 1992, called her “the Mother Teresa of Miami [and] a faith-filled person who was literally a blessing to the community.... I never heard her talk about ‘disabled children,’ just about children.”
The Children’s Trust, which Lawrence founded, gave Ceccotti its 2010 David Lawrence Jr. Champion for Children Award for a “lifetime of achievement and dedication to children.”
In 1992, Pope John Paul II recognized Ceccotti with the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal. With characteristic self-effacement, she said that it wasn’t just for herself but “for the community, for the sisters who have worked to establish a tradition of love and education.”
A Herald story recounted how she briefly met the pope when he visited Miami in 1987.
As the pope left the altar in a downpour, “Sister Lucia Ceccotti saw her chance and made a break for him. From her spot with 40 elderly and handicapped people chosen to receive a papal blessing, Ceccotti ran with a 2-year-old boy in her arms,’’ Matthew Giampaolo of Fort Lauderdale, the Marian Center’s then-youngest student.
She told a reporter: “The pope put his hand on Matthew, and I grabbed his hand. He touched everybody — all the children he touched.”
Marketer Seth Gordon, who’s been working with the center on raising its profile, and therefore donations, thinks of Ceccotti as a “horse whisperer’’ with children.
“She has a wonderful, soothing impact on these kids,’’ Gordon said. “Some would be traumatized or upset, but she’d go and hug them and magic happened. All of a sudden everything was good in the world.
“But she was a strict disciplinarian. At lunch, kids sat quietly at their tables. They bused and served themselves, and she instilled all that. You got the sense there was order in their lives.’’
A 1983 Herald profile called Ceccotti “a pitiless woman, pitiless in the best sense,’’ meaning that she expected certain types of conduct — and no sniveling or self-pity.
The profile described how a mother brought in her 3-year-old son with behavior problems, and how, in the mother’s words, the nun “took him by the hand and marched him off to see the place. You could tell there would be no nonsense with her. She made me think of that woman in England who trains the dogs on TV, you know, ‘No Bad Dogs.’ With Sister Lucia there are No Bad Kids.”
A public viewing will be held from 3 p.m.-7:30 p.m.on Thursday at the Marian Center, with the wake service at 6 p.m., 15701 NW 37th Avenue Miami Gardens, 33054.
The Mass will be 10 a.m. on Friday at St. Mary Cathedral, 7525 NW 2nd Ave., Miami.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations can be made to the Marian Center.