SEA BRIGHT — The borough has lost a tireless advocate and public servant, those who knew and worked with the late former mayor Maria Fernandes are saying as they remember her work and life.
Fernandes, 59,died on Sunday at the Barnabas Health Hospice and Palliative Care Center, Long Branch, according to the Damiano Funeral Home, Long Branch.
Fernandes, who spent more than 16 years serving as a Democratic mayor, borough council member and planning board member, had struggled with numerous health challenges in the last few years, recovering from a stroke, which affected her speech and movement on her right side. Last year, she had her right leg amputated because of circulatory problems.
Mayor Dina Long, who became mayor last month, said Fernandes had gone into the hospital to address respiratory issues.
While she had to combat a variety of health challenges over the last few years, “Every time, she always bounced back,” Long said. “And that she didn’t bounce back this time really took us by shock.”
Fernandes served one four-year term as mayor, and even with her health considerations, she had initially considered seeking another term. She ultimately decided to step down last year and encouraged Long to run for the mayoral slot. Long won the seat last November.
In an interview with ***ITAL**The Two River Times***END** last month, Fernandes hinted that she might want to serve her community in some capacity in the near future. “I may look to come back to the council. You never know,” she said in January.
Fernandes was originally from Elizabeth. Her family bought vacation property in Sea Bright back in 1958, and eventually relocated here fulltime, she said last month.
Over the years, she worked for a steamship company in Newark and as a manager for a dental manufacturing company headquartered in Holmdel.
Former Mayor Charles Rooney (now deceased) tried to persuade Fernandes to run for borough council approximately two decades ago, but she declined, later agreeing to serve on the planning board, a role she began to really enjoy, she said.
It was in her role as a public servant that she hit her stride, Long noted. “It’s what she enjoyed most,” Long remembered. “The best part of her service was being able to help the residents solve their problems. She got a lot of fulfillment out of that.”
Fernandes took great pride in obtaining assistance for the borough’s infrastructure projects, working with federal lawmakers and state representatives to get grants to upgrade the sewers, an improvement long needed in a borough with water on both sides of it.
“She was really instrumental in every major infrastructure improvement that has happened in the last 10 years,” including a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant, for new bulkheads and pumping station, Long said.
An ally on some of those fronts was U.S. Representative Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ).
“She was the most hardworking mayor that I’ve ever seen,” Pallone said this week. “She just totally devoted her life to the town.”
Pallone and Fernandes would regularly discuss Sea Bright issues, such as beach replenishment projects, Shrewsbury River dredging and other borough concerns. “That was her life and I don’t think you’ll ever see anyone like that again, just devoted so much of her life to her community.”
But more than that, Pallone added, “She was a friend, someone I could rely on and ask for advice.”
“I am definitely grieving the loss of my friend,” Long echoed. “She really battled valiantly so many health challenges that a lot of people didn’t even know about and yet she never let that stop her.”
Long saw Fernandes as a mentor as well as friend, guiding Long through the ins and outs of municipal government. “She personally spent many hours with me, teaching me how to read a budget, how to write an ordinance,” Long said. “She was a tireless advocate for Sea Bright.”
“She was a truly wonderful woman,” said Eatontown Mayor Gerald Tarantolo. Tarantolo is chairman of the Two River Council of Mayors, which includes Sea Bright as a member.
“She was easy to talk to, easy to get along with, but very firm in what she did,” Tarantolo offered. “And that’s really the characteristics of an excellent mayor and that’s what she was, an excellent mayor.”
Her mother, Adelina Fernandes, who lives in Sea Bright, survives Fernandes. A memorial mass for Fernandes will take place this Saturday, Marh 3, at Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church, Rumson.