NEW YORK CITY — Months before her 100th birthday, and realizing she didn’t have much time left, the Vargas family threw a party for matriarch Domitila inside St. Brigid's Church on the Lower East Side.
The mother of 14, who lived to know her dozens of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren, had made peace with what was coming, her youngest son Herman said.
Domitila, who was deeply religious, told her family at the party about her final request.
She wanted to be buried back in her tiny village in Gaspar Hernández, Dominican Republic. And after her funeral, she wanted her family to serve the hundreds of people in her village.
It would be “an opportunity to eat in her memory,” a final act of service for a woman who saw joy and grace in helping others, said Vargas, of East Elmhurst, who worked his way up to his current role from his first job behind the counter at 18.
Vargas and his family got to work facilitating the final meal, so they would be ready when their mother finally passed. She died Dec. 11, just nine days before her actual 100th birthday.
By then they’d found the caterer who could handle cooking the meal Domitila had specified —moro, a Dominican dish of rice and beans, roast chicken, spaghetti, salad, and coffee.
Domitila had set aside some of her own money but the rest of the Vargas family worked to raise the rest. A granddaughter started an online fundraiser, and another picked up donations from her job. In total they raised around $4,000, enough to cover food for the whole village.
They originally thought they would feed around 500 people, but after her burial on Dec. 19, they ended up feeding 710 people over two days, Vargas said.
Family members served the villagers of their mother's hometown in the Dominican Republic after her funeral, fulfilling her final request.
Wearing T-shirts with their mother's photo, family members served the villagers, many who knew Domitila from her visits back home.
It was their final gift to their mother, who was orphaned at 6 and struggled throughout her own childhood, Vargas said.
“She had all the reasons to be bitter and complaining,” Herman Vargas said. “But she was so committed and so driven to be of service.”
Niki Russ-Furman, a fourth generation co-owner of her family's shop, said she wasn't surprised to hear about the Vargas family's act of service.
"[Herman] is one of the most remarkable people I know, one of the most generous and giving people I'll ever meet," she said.
Neighbors lined up to eat after Domitila Vargas' burial in the Dominican Republic.
Jennifer Vargas, 28, said her grandmother's last wish was reflective of her life.
"She wanted to be remembered as someone who constantly served, constantly thinking of other people," she said.
"The last memory she wanted to leave was she fed everyone at her village," Herman said.
He added that his mother always told him, "those who want to be important, serve."