Sister Maria Mercedes, 87, social worker, teacher, gardener

May 28, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Sister Maria Mercedes Hartmann, a trained social worker and teacher who worked closely with Catholic Charities for many years, died Thursday of a heart attack in the Maria Health Center at Villa Assumpta. She was 87.

Born Gretchen Margaret Hartmann in Ebensburg, Pa., she encountered nuns as a fifth-grader at Holy Name Parochial School. She was not impressed. In an autobiography she wrote before joining the sisters, Sister Maria Mercedes said of that time: "Most sisters told far-fetched and ridiculous stories showing the power of Satan and the horrors of Hell. So I paid no attention to them."

After graduating from public high school, she came to Maryland to attend what is now the College of Notre Dame. Her family had said they would pay for her college education, provided she spend the first year at a Catholic school. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in history and earned her master's in social work from Loyola University in Chicago.

Sister Maria Mercedes worked as a social worker in New York and Pennsylvania.

"In those days, for a woman to be doing something like that was something," said Sister Bernice Feilinger, a friend. "She was, in some ways, ahead of her time in social justice areas, very concerned about the poor."

Sister Maria Mercedes didn't seriously consider joining the School Sisters of Notre Dame until she broke her arm in college and was prayed over by Mother General Mary Almeda, who was visiting. Sister Maria Mercedes often said she believed that moment was an exceptional blessing in her life, the sisters recalled.

Sister Maria Mercedes professed her vows in 1943.

For three decades, she taught religion and sociology at the College of Notre Dame. She wrote a book, a study of college volunteers working with "antisocial adolescents," according to a 1962 story in The Sun.

For four years, she served at the National Catholic Charities Office and spent more than a decade as coordinator of Catholic Charities in Baltimore, from 1982 to 1994. Earlier in her career, she started a Catholic Charities office in Johnstown, Pa.

In later years, she also spent time working with sisters on aging issues. She traveled to parishes and helped members of the community learn to care for their elderly parents.

Sister Maria Mercedes loved to garden in her spare time, tending to the flowers at Notre Dame.

She is one of 678 nuns who signed up for the Nun Study in 1990, a research effort designed to understand Alzheimer's disease. Her brain will be studied by researchers.

"She felt that was a way to contribute to society after her death," said Sister Bernice Feilinger.

A Mass will be offered at 10 a.m. today at Villa Assumpta, 6401 Charles St. in Towson. She will be buried in the College of Notre Dame cemetery.

Sister Maria Mercedes is survived by nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews.

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