Sister Helen Marie Duffy, 87, headmistress at Notre Dame prep school

August 26, 2002|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Sister Helen Marie Duffy, a retired headmistress of Notre Dame Preparatory School who demonstrated compassion, courage and selflessness to thousands of students during her six decades at the school, died Friday at age 87.

She died at Villa Assumpta, the mother house for retired School Sisters of Notre Dame, of complications from a fall she suffered Aug. 13.

Sister Helen Marie was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. As a teen-ager, she taught impoverished children in Manhattan's Bowery.

She earned her bachelor's degree from the College of Notre Dame, where she majored in French and played field hockey and lacrosse. She took her vows in 1938 and joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame teaching order. She was appointed mistress of high school boarders at Notre Dame Prep and looked after 35 girls for two years.

She taught biology from 1940 until 1970, during which time the school moved from its Charles Street campus to Towson. In 1954, she earned her master's degree in biology from the Catholic University of America in Washington.

In 1970, she was named assistant principal and began shaping an atmosphere of academic rigor, dynamic ideas and social justice.

Sister Helen Marie became the school's headmistress in 1979 and quickly emerged as a leader whose purpose was to do what was necessary to prepare her girls for the world.

"She graduated kids who were ready to deal with the risks of being women in our society," said Lucy Strausbaugh, head of the school's religion department since 1977.

She said that Sister Helen Marie gave the faculty freedom to pursue ideas that more conservative schools might have frowned upon. Sister Helen Marie encouraged participation in a student exchange program with a sister school in war-ravaged El Salvador, and supporting an orphanage in Romania.

"She had courage - she knew it was good for the girls and put our school in the path of justice," Ms. Strausbaugh said.

She also had humility. "Helen Marie cleaned pots and pans with an expertise and speed that would put any hotel dishwasher to shame," said Jeff Goethals, a retired Notre Dame religion teacher who knew her for more than 30 years. "She didn't think twice about doing menial tasks."

Mr. Goethals also commented on her razor-sharp mind and memory, noting that she probably knew all 6,000 living alumnae by name. "She looked always at every single girl as a child of God, not only for what they were but the promise for what they could be," he said.

One former student, who spent 12 years in her care and as an adult worked for her as the director of development for 19 years, fondly remembered Sister Helen Marie's classroom persona.

"As a teacher, she was patient, always compassionate, incredibly smart and she had a wicked sarcasm some of the time," said Tracey Henson Ford, Class of 1974. "She was no docile soul. ... Her wit is what kept the classroom lively."

That edge appeared when she accompanied the Class of 1974 on the annual senior three-day visit to New York.

"Well, the minute she gets to New York, she becomes a New Yorker again," Mrs. Ford said. "Here's this little person leaping into Fifth Avenue, hailing cabs for us."

Sister Helen Marie oversaw fund-raising efforts that increased the school's endowment from $425,000 in 1990 to $2.3 million in 1997, when she retired. After her retirement, she continued to volunteer at the school in the development office, extending her time at Notre Dame to 64 years until she stopped working in June.

"She was a very simple, unassuming person who loved people and loved to be of service to people," said Sister Bernice Feilinger, who knew Sister Helen Marie for 30 years.

A funeral Mass will be offered at 10 a.m. tomorrow at the Mother House, 6401 N. Charles St.

She is survived by four sisters, Miriam Scavullo and Constance Corroon both of Rye, N.Y., Florence Doherty of Scranton, Pa., and Jane Burt of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; one brother, the Rev. Stephen Duffy of New York; and several nieces and nephews.

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