Sister Claire Parenteau, 64, youth worker

December 24, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Sister Claire Parenteau, who managed the Franciscan Youth Center on Greenmount Avenue for more than 10 years, died Thursday at her East Baltimore convent after a nine-year battle with cancer. She was 64.

Sister Claire was born and raised in Providence, R.I., and grew up dreaming of becoming a dancer after high school. But her life changed the day Sister Denis Sullivan, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Baltimore and friend of her mother, visited her high school in Providence.

Sister Denis impressed her by describing the Franciscan order's work with disadvantaged African-American youths in the South and in New York's Harlem. The order came to Baltimore from England in the 19th century, when other white nuns refused to establish a needed orphanage for black children.

In 1958, months after graduating from high school, she joined the Franciscan Sisters of Baltimore -- now known as the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi -- and moved to the order's El- lerslie Avenue convent to study.

After completing the standard six years of religious training, she began her work with disadvantaged youth.

Between 1964 and 1990 she taught in Norfolk and Danville in Virginia; New York City and Yonkers, N.Y.; and briefly in Baltimore. For five years, she was principal at Christ the King school in Norfolk.

She earned a bachelor's degree in education from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland in 1969.

In 1990, she returned to Baltimore. A year later, she became director of the Franciscan Youth Center, remaining until illness forced her to retire last year. The center provides after-school tutoring and social services to young people in the Midway-Barclay community.

Sister Claire used her musical abilities -- she played the African drum and the guitar -- to encourage children to pursue their talents. She also performed interpretive dance during services at St. Ann's Roman Catholic Church, next to the youth center -- until arthritis forced her to set aside her lifelong passion, said her sister, Rita O'Keefe of Augusta, Ga.

She was affectionately known to many Baltimore youths as "Sis," according to Sister Mary Gray, a Franciscan nun and friend of Sister Claire's.

In the mid-1990s, Sister Claire motivated a half-dozen struggling high school students to graduate by promising a cross-country trip. When they did, she kept her word -- accompanying them on a drive to California, Sister Mary said.

In a 1993 letter to The Sun, Sister Claire criticized a change in a federal program that gave jobs to students who maintained good grades. The change forced the program to provide work to dropouts as well, and the Franciscan Youth Center objected because it staffed its summer camp with workers from the program.

"I believe that we have a responsibility to help dropouts, but I am strongly opposed to helping them at the expense of youngsters who have struggled to achieve good grades and stay in school," she wrote.

After her retirement, Sister Claire continued her work in the community, helping to secure a grant to purchase skateboards for children and to provide an area where they could safely skate, Sister Mary said.

A Mass of Christian burial for Sister Claire was offered yesterday at St. Ann's, and she was buried in the convent cemetery.

In addition to her sister, she is survived by her mother, Claire Parenteau of Warwick, R.I.; a brother, Frank Parenteau of Cranston, R.I.; and two nieces and five nephews.

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