Sister Melvina L. Bennett, whose work with poor women and families won her the respect and admiration of her peers in the School Sisters of Notre Dame, died of complications from cancer July 23 at Union Memorial Hospital. She was 64.
Born in Charleston, S.C., to Lee James Bennett and Rosetta Chavis Bennett, she was raised a Baptist but converted to Roman Catholicism while attending college at the Hampton Institute in Virginia.
Her mother died when she was 7, and she and her younger sister, LaVerne, were left in the care of her maternal grandmother, Sarah Chavis. Three years later, their father remarried and the family reunited, growing to include three more sisters and a brother.
"She came from a strong Baptist family. Her maternal grandmother had a great influence on her in terms of Bible reading and witnessing," said Sister Pat Glinka, a close friend.
After receiving a bachelor's degree in psychology from the Hampton Institute in 1964, Sister Melvina came to Baltimore to take a job as a caseworker assistant with the city's Department of Social Services.
Sister Melvina - known more familiarly to the nuns in her order as "Sister Mel" - would later recount that she arrived in Baltimore with "65 dollars, self determination and a prayer that she would be able to survive these new and strange surroundings," Sister Pat said.
She earned a master's degree in social work from Howard University in 1968 and held administrative and managerial positions in the city's Social Services Department.
Sister Melvina, then a member of St. Matthew Catholic Church in Northwood, was in her late 30s when she entered the School Sister of Notre Dame in 1981.
"She was being of service as a social worker, and she wanted to continue to do that but also to pay attention to God's working in her life," Sister Pat said.
Sister Melvina spent four years doing social service work at Sacred Heart School in Tampa, Fla., before returning to Baltimore in 1987 as parent liaison and family services coordinator for the Head Start program sponsored at St. Veronica's Church in Cherry Hill.
Since 1994, she had been assistant director of the Marian House in Waverly, a program that helps women make the transition from homelessness, prison or drug dependency to stable and productive lives.
Other nuns who had worked with her in the programs mourned her death.
"I'm terribly sad, not just because she was a friend but because of the contributions she made to people who are sometimes forgotten - the poor, and particularly women," said Sister Loretta Rosendale.
Sister Augusta Reilly said that Sister Melvina knew how to bring out the best in women who were trying to rebuild their lives.
"Sister Mel could zero in, no matter what their flaws or limitations, on what they could do best and make them feel good about themselves," Sister Augusta said.
Sister Melvina served as chaplain to the Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange Court of the Catholic Daughters of America and had been on many religious committees. Sister Melvina was dispatched to Rome to help prepare for an international meeting of the School Sisters of Notre Dame a few years ago, Sister Pat said.
A Mass of Christian burial was offered Saturday at Villa Assumpta in Baltimore.
In addition to her father, Sister Melvina is survived by a brother, Lee James Bennett Jr. of Virginia; and three sisters, LaVerne Bennett and Clarice Lemon of Charleston, S.C., and Stephanie Reid of Minneapolis.