After Sister Frances Antoinette Engler, a beloved Philadelphia nun and teacher, was fatally struck by a utility truck Thursday, hundreds of colleagues, friends, and former and current students took to social media to remember her:
“Her impact was endless.” “A spitfire.” “The biggest heart.” “One of a kind.”
Sister Frances, 80, who entered the Sisters of Saint Joseph in 1959, spent her life mentoring young people and uplifting the less fortunate. She was born in Philadelphia, with her home parish being Presentation BVM in Cheltenham, and taught theology at Archbishop Ryan High School in Northeast Philadelphia for over 30 years.
Around 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, just a few blocks from the school, a Peco truck driver struck Sister Frances while she was crossing Academy Road onto Morrell Avenue. She was taken to Jefferson Torresdale Hospital, where she died about an hour later.
Police said the driver, a 53-year-old man, did not see her when he made a left turn, and that drugs and alcohol were not factors. The crash is under investigation.
Tom Brubaker, spokesperson for Peco, said the utility company was conducting its own investigation.
“Our concern, thoughts, and prayers are with the family of the deceased,” Brubaker said in an email.
The death sent shockwaves across Philadelphia’s Catholic community.
Sister Frances taught elementary and secondary education in New Jersey before joining Archbishop Ryan in 1988. She taught freshman theology most of her time there, enjoying supporting young students and molding their values, said principal Joseph McFadden.
McFadden was one of her theology students in 1993 and described her as “tough in a good way.”
“She was fiery, funny, and she did not mince words, in the nicest way,” he said.
Her “baby,” McFadden said, was the school’s Community Service Corps, an after-school volunteer group. She built the program from the ground up, running food drives and spending weekends working in soup kitchens with students. Every Christmas, she delivered presents to underprivileged children in Philadelphia through the school’s “Operation Santa Claus” gift drive.
McFadden said she was “persuasive” and “industrious.” If Sister Frances found out a student drove a truck or large vehicle that could haul gifts or canned goods, there was no way to get out of helping. Faculty and staff, too, were often persuaded to spend Christmas Eve delivering gifts with her, he said.
“She wanted to teach us many different things, not just the beliefs and the faith. She wanted to be sure we were living it up,” he said.
She retired from teaching in 2019 due to health issues, but continued to volunteer at the school.
“Her heart was in the high school,” said the Rev. James Callahan of Christ the King Church, whose convent she lived in for 33 years. “It was her life.”
During Friday morning Mass, attendees said a Hail Mary for the truck driver, he said.
“I don’t know who was at fault, but there is something in me that doesn’t want to know,” he said.
Sister Frances cared deeply for her students. When a 15-year-old student was fatally hit by a car in 2011, according to a news article, she helped raise money for a stained-glass window to be installed in the school’s chapel in his memory.
Elizabeth Garvey, an Archbishop Ryan student in 2009, said she was bullied in school and had few friends. But Sister Frances sat with her every day at lunch to make sure that she was not alone.
“She was the only teacher there who cared enough to make sure I was OK, and I will never forget her as long as I live,” she said.
“Sister Frances Antoinette devoted her life in wholehearted, compassionate love and service to others,” the Sisters of Saint Joseph said in a statement. “[She] will be remembered for a life well-lived, her enthusiasm for teaching, and her remarkable sense of humor.”
In a statement, Philadelphia Archbishop Nelson Pérez said he was “deeply saddened” to learn of her death.
“She enriched the lives of many young people through her dedication to the mission of Catholic education for several decades,” he said. “She inspired students to be faithful witnesses to Christ by serving as missionary disciples.”