A Legacy of Helping Others: A New Generation Discovers the Generosity of Sister Barbara Carvalho
In her senior year at MMC, Sophia Aste ’23 received the latest in a string of scholarships that made it possible for her to attend school in New York. A native of Salt Lake City, Utah, she’d moved halfway across the country to pursue a Dance BFA at the College, but she wouldn’t have been able to afford tuition, or life in the city, on her own. “I was supported by an extended family member, but most of my ability to go to MMC was because of scholarships,” Aste said.
Little did she know that final bit of aid, capping off her time at MMC, would also connect her to a cherished Marymount Manhattan legacy. Aste was the 2022-23 recipient of the Sister Barbara Carvalho Endowed Scholarship, named for a member of the College’s founding order, the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary (RSHM), who devoted 40 years of service to MMC. Sister Barbara passed in 2015 at the age of 98, and in recognition of the impact she had, MMC each year gives a scholarship to students who demonstrate academic merit and financial need.
When Aste received the award, she joined the ranks of talented MMC students who, over several decades, were aided by Sister Barbara and would go on to establish incredible careers across a broad range of fields.
A Kind and Giving Heart
Born Rita Pinto Carvalho more than a century ago in Forles, Viseu, Portugal, Sister Barbara entered the RSHM in 1939 and began ministering in her native country before moving to the U.S.
The RSHM is a 174-year-old order of Catholic women that was founded in France; its sisters devote their lives to charitable service. In Sister Barbara’s day, the order followed a two-tiered system inherited from the French, with some sisters devoted to teaching and others to domestic work.
As a domestic sister, Sister Barbara served among the support staff for the order’s network of Marymount schools in New York and Tarrytown before coming to Marymount Manhattan in 1960. She would work closely with MMC’s then-president, Sister Colette Mahoney, RSHM, Ph.D., and become a familiar face in the College’s Upper East Side neighborhood.
“Sister Barbara would visit local bakeries and collect leftover bread for poor families,” said Bettye Musham, a former MMC trustee and the retired president and CEO of Gear Holdings, Inc. “She was always looking for opportunities to help those in need.”
Indeed, Helen Lowe ’55, who spent more than two decades working for MMC and served as the College’s longtime Vice President of Institutional Advancement, still smiles at a story she says underscores Sister Barbara’s commitment to assisting others.
“I had an extra umbrella that went missing, and I knew where it had gone,” she said. “Sister Barbara would always take something if there were two of them—once even a lamp—and give it to a family in need.”
What’s more, Sister Barbara never forgot her native Portugal—which, at the time, struggled with high rates of poverty and illiteracy—or its children. She served as a resource for Portuguese immigrant families in New York, connecting them to job opportunities and other services. Her work with them was recognized by the Archdiocese of New York, and decades later, she would be featured in the book Lives With Meaning: 225 Emigration Stories, published by the Consulate of Portugal in New York in celebration of its 225th anniversary.
In addition to her work in the U.S., Sister Barbara also made a point to travel to Portugal often to spend time with her family. On those trips, she would arrive bearing gifts for the entire village. “She would bring things for the church, she would bring things for all the kids in town, like clothes,” said Eugenia Carvalho ’91, Ph.D., a distant cousin of Sister Barbara who grew up in the same area. The town was rural, with most residents working in agriculture or as stone workers, Dr. Carvalho said, and Sister Barbara’s acts of kindness were not forgotten.
At the time, Dr. Carvalho was a teenager, and it wasn’t long before Sister Barbara began to ask her about her life plans. “I didn’t know,” Dr. Carvalho laughed. “I hadn’t thought about it.” But Sister Barbara would help her to fill in the gaps. In 1985, Sister Barbara sent Dr. Carvalho a ticket to visit her in New York—and offered her a life-changing opportunity to enroll at MMC.
Dr. Carvalho spent her first month with Sister Barbara tagging along as she made her rounds to bakeries and collected bags full of bread for the poor—and marveled at the constant ringing of Sister Barbara’s phone. “People would be calling at all hours for help,” Dr. Carvalho said. “Her name was passed around among families.”
At MMC, Dr. Carvalho developed an interest in science that would launch her into an impressive career: After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, she completed her master’s and Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine at the University of Gothenburg’s Lundberg Laboratory for Diabetes Research in Sweden. She then completed her post-doctoral work at Harvard Medical School before returning to Portugal to start her own laboratory at the Center for Neurosciences and Cell Biology in Coimbra.
Sister Barbara helped other international students enroll at MMC, just as she helped Dr. Carvalho: That includes Maria de Lurdes F. Caiado, Dr. Carvalho’s sister, and Maria-Antonieta Pinto Lopes D’Alva, a student from Guinea-Bissau. Sister Barbara enlisted women like Musham to take the students into their homes.
Today, both Caiado and D’Alva have gone on to high-profile careers: Caiado works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Portugal, and D’Alva was appointed Ambassador of Guinea-Bissau to Ethiopia and Permanent Representative of Guinea-Bissau to the African Union and to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.
“I will never forget how Sister Barbara took care of everyone who reached out to her, how her soft voice and gentle smile were enough to give hope and reaffirm that things would be okay,” D’Alva said. “’Just keep the faith and work hard,’ she used to say. She was and will always be my angel.”
As a new grad, Aste is on her way to establishing her own career. Since receiving her BFA in Dance this May, she’s already gotten an offer to train with a small ballet company in the city. In her free time, she volunteers with the youth leadership group HOBY and is launching an organization that will bring artists together for collaborative salons, allowing them to build community and find funding for their work.
“I’m honored to be a part of Sister Barbara’s legacy,” Aste said. “I’m amazed by the wide-ranging impact she’s had.”