Sister Stephanie wrote her own `Good Book'

A life: She was a teacher and guiding light for 104 years, with a century of Baltimore history at her fingertips.

June 12, 1999|By Jacques Kelly

THE OTHER MORNING I had a call from my sister Ann, ever the careful newspaper reader. She'd spotted a single paragraph, an obituary on one of our favorite teachers, a 104-year-old nun, Sister Mary Stephanie Hanley.

Sister Stephanie had me in the fifth grade in 1960-61. She taught my sister French and history.

She was from another time and world, a place where she lived, prospered and communicated its charms and quirks to others. Gloriously.

The Hanleys are an old Baltimore County family, known today for its ownership of the Beaver Dam Swimming Club -- an old Cockeysville quarry that Sister Stephanie would have known only as a place where limestone was excavated.

She had been a student at the Visitation Monastery when it was at Park Avenue and Centre Street (today the site of the Maryland Historical Society's changing exhibit building) about 1910. She traveled daily by streetcar from Towson and walked through a door known as the scholar's entrance.

She possessed a first-hand knowledge of Baltimore history. How many people could recall when Johns Hopkins University was located on Howard Street -- opposite the old monastery? She could, perhaps forgetting that it had moved to Homewood about the time she took her vows.

By 1914 she had decided to leave Towson behind and become a sister in the cloistered Visitation order, leaving the walls of the monastery only to do her teaching. When the monastery moved to Roland Avenue in 1927, she moved too and remained there until it folded in 1977.

As a teacher, she was one of those who broke all the rules. She never attended college; she wasn't big on textbooks. She liked her own style of teaching -- personal, eccentric and caring. She was one great old bird.

She was terribly old-fashioned -- in the best sense of that condition. She knew about nuclear bombs and the Vietnam War, but her world was full of hope and good cheer.

Sister Stephanie was old enough to have retired when she took on my class of 10-year-olds in 1960.

Discipline was never her strong point. When the class was rioting, she merely clapped her hands and said, "I hear noise." The rioting continued.

She was a believer in the written word -- the art of letter and essay writing. That year we wrote and wrote and wrote, all recorded in composition books she called our "Good Books." Throughout the year she collected them, and with her infinite patience, corrected the essays and pasted in pictures she'd cut from magazines. Toward the end of spring, she returned the books one last time, now all re-covered in cotton material -- a dust jacket for our year's effort.

Those of us who knew Sister Stephanie feared the worst when the Visitation Monastery closed and the sisters she'd lived with moved to other places -- I perceived it as a major disruption in a life that seemingly never varied.

But she moved on gracefully to a Visitation monastery in Wilmington, Del. On my first visit to her new abode, I gave up worrying about her health and age. That was 22 years years ago and she still possessed the ability to cheer me up, communicating an inner strength of the ages.

By the 1990s she had seen a thing or two of life. I asked her feelings about yet another move -- the sisters were off to a new monastery in the hills of western Massachusetts, the place where she died May 30. She confided that she had never really gotten over leaving Park Avenue back in 1927.

"I'm still looking for things I mislaid then," she told me. I can see why she made it until 1999.

Pub Date: 6/12/99

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