AUBURN — Maria Virgili Phillips (formerly Adelfa Virgili Merrill) passed away peacefully on Feb. 22, under hospice care at Clover Health Care.
Maria was born in Camaguey, Cuba, to Pedro and Ana (Rioseco) Virgili, immigrated to the U.S. in the 1940s and became an American citizen in 1950. Her parents gave her the name of Adelfa, a rare and beautiful, but poisonous flower — a fact she was always quick to add with a chuckle. She eventually changed her name to Maria, but the definition of her given name fit her perfectly, as there was nothing common about Maria.
A musically gifted child, Maria began studying piano at an early age and made her debut on Cuban radio at nine years of age. She studied classical piano and voice for four years in Havana at the National Conservatory of Music. There, she played the lead, Mimi, in a major opera “La Boheme.”
Ready to hit the big time in the early 1940s, Maria and her mother ventured to New York City to further her career, as other Cuban musicians like Xavier Cugat had done. There, she sang and played on NBC short-wave radio to South America; had her own radio program; performed in the Christmas shows at Radio City Music Hall; and signed on with MGM Studios to dub the singing for American films for South America. She also volunteered to sing in performances to raise money for U.S. war bonds.
Just as her career began to gain momentum, her mother became gravely ill, forcing their return to Cuba, where Ana passed away. Heartbroken after losing her best friend, she mustered her courage to return to New York, resume her career and continue a romance with a handsome American G.I. from Michigan, Earl Merrill. They soon married and Maria gave up her budding career to become a full-time wife and mother of two. The family moved to the Midwest and they managed to hold their star-crossed marriage together for 12 years.
A woman raising two children alone in a foreign country with no Spanish language or cultural support and without a formal education outside of music, had to be a daunting challenge. But typical of Maria, she found a way to use her musical talents and her Spanish language skills to earn money to support herself and her children without assistance. She taught piano lessons in the home, played professionally wherever possible and tutored students in Spanish. Her abundant energy, great sense of humor, self-confidence and dogged determination (“watch my smoke”) as she often said, helped carry her and her family through some very tough times. She was a tremendous role model for her children and for single mothers everywhere.
She moved the family from Michigan to Ohio for a few years, until an opportunity to locate in Florida, arose. She was elated to finally return to a warm climate and again made a living with her musical and teaching skills. In a few years, with her children on their own, things got even better for Maria, as she met and married Bill Phillips, her soul mate for the last 36 years. They were an extremely compatible couple, always respectful and supportive of each other’s varied interests. They traveled together to Greece, Spain, Mexico and throughout the U.S. They were founders of and very active in the Unity Church of Ocoee, Fla., Bill as a deacon and usher and Maria with her musical and baking talents.
Sadly, due to illness, this loving couple was separated two years ago. Bill passed away in Florida, in June 2011, while Maria lived in Maine near her daughter. Despite their separation, Maria never forgot Bill and she continued to set a table with his breakfast every morning. That’s true love.
Maria is survived by her son, Jeffrey and his wife, Debbie, of Stevensville, Mich.; daughter, Kathie Leonard and her husband, Stephen Lunt, of Auburn; grandsons, TJ, his wife, Amy and Scott Merrill, also of Michigan; grandson, Colin Leonard of Atlanta, Ga.; and Maria’s half-sister, Sonia Virgili Camara of Oakbook, Ill.
The family thanks the staff of Clover Health Care for their loving care in making Maria feel so welcome, loved and appreciated during her short time here in Maine. Most recently, we have come to know first-hand of the great work Androscoggin Home Care and Hospice does every day for countless people like Maria in our community.
A private service will be held for Maria and Bill in Florida.