Helen Martha Gilner, 68, teacher, advocate for needy

April 05, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Helen Martha Gilner, a former nun who taught for more than 30 years in Roman Catholic schools and later worked with the needy in Baltimore, died Tuesday of leukemia at the home of her sister, Del. Elizabeth Bobo, in Columbia. She was 68.

Independent-minded Ms. Gilner once was chastised by a superior for not moving quickly enough through a math textbook. She argued that it was more important for students to clearly understand a few basic principles instead of racing through.

Another time, a monsignor publicly criticized one of her students for a poor report card, and she intervened in the student's defense.

"She stepped forward and said, `Oh, Monsignor, but look at the improvement from last quarter,' " recalled Ms. Bobo, a Democrat who represents Howard County. About 20 years later, that young boy contacted his former teacher to thank her.

"He told her that hardly a day had gone by that he hadn't thought about what she did," Ms. Bobo said.

"It mattered to him that someone paid attention to what he was doing well and had confidence in him. And I think he recognized that my sister stepped out of line to do it."

Born in Baltimore, Ms. Gilner graduated from Seton High School, earned a bachelor of arts degree from Marywood College in Scranton, Pa., in 1952, and a master's degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1972.

As a member of the Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, she spent more than 30 years teaching math and science in Catholic schools in Maryland, Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania.

In the mid-1980s, she found a new calling as a tireless advocate for the homeless and disadvantaged.

She ran food programs for the needy from the Franciscan Center on Maryland Avenue until surgery for breast cancer left her unable to lift heavy pots and pans.

Then she worked with people addicted to drugs and alcohol. She took calls from them at home, managed their money, counseled them, shared meals with them and "talked to them about how to hang on and get through the tough times," Ms. Bobo said.

"One day on the way to a doctor appointment, she asked me to drive her to the Franciscan Center, and as we drove down Maryland Avenue people on the street would literally spot her in the car and call out, `Martha, Martha,' " said Ms. Bobo.

After a 12 1/2-year struggle with breast cancer, Ms. Gilner was diagnosed with leukemia in December.

Her final request was to have her ashes buried in a common grave with the unidentified bodies of other Baltimore residents.

"Those are the people she worked with," said Ms. Bobo.

Ms. Gilner was a longtime subscriber to Center Stage, the Baltimore Symphony and the Baltimore Opera.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 1 p.m. April 24 at St. Bernardine Roman Catholic Church, 3812 Edmondson Ave.

In addition to Ms. Bobo, she is survived by another sister, Mary Keyes of Arbutus; and nine nieces and nephews.

Pub Date: 4/05/99

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