Sister Mary Frieda Chetelat

A nun with the Sisters of Mercy, known as devoted educator, activist and Orioles fan; was principal of two Baltimore schools

March 13, 2011|By Nick Madigan, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

Sister Mary Frieda Chetelat, a nun with the Sisters of Mercy who was admired for her talents as a teacher, her social activism and her relentless humor, died on March 3. She was 97 and had been in the order for seven decades, during which she also was a principal at two Baltimore schools and a teacher at several others.

She was born Bernadine Mary Chetelat on Dec. 18, 1913, the first of Harry and Frieda Chetelat's 10 children, all of whom were born in the family's home on Lasalle Avenue in Baltimore. She was educated at St. Anthony of Padua Elementary School and Seton High School, where she was editor of the student newspaper. During her high school years, her mother became severely ill and she interrupted her education to help her father tend to the other children.

After entering the Mercy community in Baltimore in 1933, she took her final vows in 1939 and became known as Sister Frieda, although her family always called her Bernie. She earned a bachelor's degree in education at Mount St. Agnes College and a master's degree in administration from Loyola College, now Loyola University Maryland.

"She was smart as a whip," her youngest sister, Frieda Marie Flick, 83, said on Sunday. "She was into everything — very, very curious. Her mind was just as good, just as sharp, up until the day she passed, although she complained that she forgot a few things."

There was one incident, though, that remained firmly lodged in her mind, her sister said. When Bernie was an eighth-grader, she was named the May Queen, and it was her job to crown a statue of the Blessed Mother. At the last moment, a priest plucked the crown from her hands and gave it to an altar boy, who finished the task. She was profoundly disappointed.

A couple of years ago, while living at the Villa, a retirement convent on Bellona Avenue, Sister Frieda was again named the May Queen, and got her wish at last. "She stood up out of her wheelchair and put the crown on the Blessed Mother's statue," Frieda Flick said. "That fulfilled a lifetime dream of hers."

Sister Frieda was a teacher and administrator at schools in Maryland, Virginia, Georgia and the District of Columbia. In Baltimore, she was principal of Shrine of the Sacred Heart School twice, in the 1950s and the 1970s, and was principal of St. Bernard's School in the late 1960's.

She also worked at Immaculate Conception School in Washington for a time as its principal, and taught at several other Maryland institutions, including Mount Washington Country School, the St. Gregory parish school and the Learning Bank of Communities Organized to Improve Life — all three in Baltimore — as well as St. Peter's School in Oakland and Little Flower School in Woodstock.

Sister Margaret Downing, who knew Sister Frieda for 25 years and helped care for her after she retired, recalled her friend's dedication to students and the way she gave special attention to the impoverished or disabled.

"During her years at the Learning Bank, she spent hours trying to find materials which would interest adults who had not had the opportunity to learn to read," Sister Margaret said. "She rejoiced with each person's progress and was saddened when an adult dropped out."

In 1987, Sister Frieda wrote in a community directory about her educational philosophy: "To teach is to grasp the present opportunity to make a difference — positively — in the present and future lives of our students."

"Our lives, more than our words," she went on, "are the ultimate technique for imparting knowledge and values."

To that end, Sister Frieda was equally focused on social justice, and took part years ago in demonstrations in Washington against the U.S. Army School of the Americas, which for decades has provided military and counterinsurgency training to armies and clandestine forces in Latin America. During one of the protests, Sister Frieda was arrested and jailed in the city lockup alongside a few prostitutes.

"She spent the night there," recalled Sister Lois Mueller, 95, her closest friend. "She wanted the experience. Of course, she made friends with everyone in the jail. Typical of her. Even the guard liked her. She thought it was a great lark."

On another occasion, Sister Lois said, her friend's "vivacious spirit" came in handy when some kids in a Catholic youth group sought permission to raise money for a field trip by setting up a stand at the old Memorial Stadium in Waverly. Because of their age, however, they were not allowed to sell beer.

"She piped up and said, 'I'll sell the beer!'" Sister Lois recalled. "And she did!"

An avid fan of the Orioles and the Ravens, Sister Frieda regularly tuned into televised games, even after losing her sight in recent years. "She'd know the score and the next morning she'd talk about it," Sister Margaret said. "She loved anything where she engaged with other people. And she was funny."

Sister Frieda, whose ancestors were from the Alsace-Lorraine region in France, suffered from bouts of bronchitis and blamed it on Maryland's climate. "No wonder," she would say, according to Sister Lois, "I'm supposed to be living in the Alps!"

While teaching at the Learning Bank, Sister Frieda was so excited by an impending visit from first lady Barbara Bush that as soon as Mrs. Bush entered the room in which she was teaching, "Frieda went right over and gave her a hug," Sister Downing said. "The Secret Service had been everywhere in that building, warning us about protocol and safety, but Frieda was undeterred. No one was going to tell her to keep her distance!"

In addition to her sister Frieda Flick, she is survived by two other sisters, Edna Spence and Mary Miglierina, and a brother, Bill Chetelat, as well as numerous younger relatives. A funeral was held at the Villa on March 7, and she was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery.

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