Sister Mariella Frye

A nationally known figure in Roman Catholic education who also had been an adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

April 01, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Sister Mariella Frye, a member of the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart and a nationally known figure in Roman Catholic education who was associate director of the National Catechetical Directory, died Friday of complications from a stroke at The Villa, the assisted-living facility that her order shares with the Sisters of Mercy in the Woodbrook section of Baltimore County.

She was 88.

"Sister Mariella was one of the great catechetical leaders and one of the great leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in the 20th century," said Sister Angela Ann Zukowski, a member of the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart who is director of the Pastoral Institute at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

"She was one of the very compassionate but strong women leaders of the church, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s. She brought dignity and respect to whatever pastoral teaching she engaged in," said Sister Angela.

Mary Catherine Frye, who was born and raised in Washington, graduated from the Sacred Heart Academy, also in Washington.

As a young woman, she was working at the U.S. Treasury Department when several Mission Helpers visited her home to take the parish census. Though she was not at home at the time, several sisters left a note: "Would Mariella be interested in teaching religion?"

Curious, she decided to visit the convent. She later enrolled in a class on how to teach religion, and after two weeks, was invited by the sisters to teach.

"I loved it! I just loved teaching religion," Sister Mariella wrote in an autobiographical profile last year celebrating her 60th anniversary as a member of her order.

A few months later in 1949, she decided to enter the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart and professed her vows in 1955.

She earned a bachelor's degree from what is now Loyola University Maryland; a master's degree in religion from Manhattanville College; and a doctorate in education from the University of Pittsburgh.

Sister Mariella held diocesan positions in religious education in North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania, before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops named her associate project director of the National Catechetical Directory in 1973. The directory established the policies and guidelines for religious education throughout the nation.

In her role as associate project director, Sister Mariella was engaged on the project from the very beginning. Part of her work entailed analyzing some 17,000 suggestions that arrived from dioceses across the country.

She shepherded the book, "Sharing the Light of Faith," through five drafts to final Vatican approval and publication in 1979.

She took on an additional task in 1978 while preparing the directory when she became the first woman to be named as an adviser to the U.S. delegation to the International Synod of Bishops in Rome.

"Sister Mariella was able to go to this group and in a very professional manner was able to find common ground. That is the gift she brought to the convention," said Sister Angela.

After the publication of the directory, Sister Mariella was asked by the conference of bishops to staff a committee to study the status of women in the Roman Catholic Church - both religious and laity.

"She had hoped that her swan song would be the issuance of a 'Pastoral Letter on Women,' and the fact that it did not happen was something of a disappointment that she had to come to terms with," Sister Angela said.

After meeting for nine years, the committee eventually issued a report that influenced the role of women in dioceses.

Sister Angela said that one of Sister Mariella's gifts was the ability to bring "stability and vision" and get "people of different dispositions on issues to sit around a table and converse."

Sister Mariella didn't like to define people.

"She'd say, 'We are one church, and we come together,' " Sister Angela said.

After retiring from the conference of bishops in 1994, Sister Mariella became secretary to Bishop Philip Francis "Frank" Murphy, who was one of a handful of Roman Catholic bishops who advocated the ordination of women.

Bishop Murphy, who died in 1999, had presented Sister Mariella with the Archdiocesan Medal of Honor for "outstanding service to the church."

After retiring a second time, she trained in hospice care, and during the late 1990s served as chaplain at Stella Maris Hospice at Mercy Medical Center. She easily accomplished the transition from administrative work to pastoral care.

"There was no trouble adjusting - I never became a bureaucrat at heart," she wrote. "There is a great need for people in hospice care. People facing death need compassion, and it was personally gratifying to be there for them."

She enjoyed vacationing in Ocean City, playing cards and reading fiction.

A Mass of Christian burial was offered Monday.

Surviving are several nieces and nephews.

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