Sister Mary Ferdinand Tunis, a Sister of Mercy who taught parochial school mathematics before establishing the Sisters of Mercy Windsor Hills Project in the early 1970s, died June 7 of pneumonia at St. Joseph Medical Center.
She was 91 and had lived for the past 15 years at The Villa, a retirement community that her order shares with the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart in the Woodbrook section of Baltimore County.
Jane Hansel Tunis was born in Baltimore and raised in the 4500 block of Prospect Circle in Windsor Hills, the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood that would come to play a major role in her life.
Her father, Howard H. Tunis, a research engineer with Waverly Press, built the first house in Windsor Hills in 1895, and her mother, Fayetta Wilson Tunis, had been a charter member in 1902 of St. Cecilia Roman Catholic Church at Windsor Avenue and Hilton Street.
After graduation from Mount St. Agnes High School, she entered the Sisters of Mercy in 1937 and took the name Sister Mary Ferdinand.
"We joined the Sisters of Mercy together more than 70 years ago and have been friends ever since," said Sister Mary Christopher Burke.
"The thing that I remember most about her was that she was always very kind to everybody and never said anything detrimental about a person," she said.
"In later years," said Sister Mary Faith McKean, also a Sister of Mercy and friend, "she was delighted to learn that her patron saint was the patron saint of engineers, her father's profession."
"I made up my mind ahead of time I was a going to like it, no matter what name I got," Sister Mary Ferdinand told The Catholic Review in a 2008 interview.
She professed her final vows in 1940, and earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a minor in chemistry in 1945 from what is now Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa.
Sister Mary Ferdinand taught at Mount St. Agnes High School from 1948 until 1950, when she left to teach at Catholic High School in Pensacola, Fla.
"We were her first class as a teacher. She taught algebra and was a very dedicated person, I thought at the time, but we found out later she had a good sense of humor," said Mary Cuba Mangione, who was a member of the Class of 1948.
"She stayed in touch with our class, and when she could, went to reunions, gatherings and funerals," said Mrs. Mangione.
Sister Mary Ferdinand taught at St. Bernard parochial school in Baltimore from 1951 to 1952, until leaving to teach at several parochial schools in Virginia and Florida.
In 1960, she returned to Baltimore as an original faculty member of Mercy High School on East Northern Parkway, where she designed the school seal and ring, which are still used by the school.
"We had to start the traditions," said Sister Mary Ferdinand in the 2008 interview.
In the early 1970s, Sister Mary Ferdinand left teaching and established the Sisters of Mercy Windsor Hills Project through the Windsor Hills Neighborhood Association, whose goals of racial harmony and neighborhood cooperation she embraced.
At the time, she was acutely aware of block-busting efforts in the neighborhood and the struggle of integration. She also was emboldened by longtime residents who refused to flee and worked hard at saving their community.
"Desegregation is legal," she told The Catholic Review, "integration is attitude."
Sister Mary Ferdinand returned to the neighborhood of her youth and received grant money to further her work.
"I don't call it outreach; I call it reach out," she said in the 2008 interview.
In order for neighbors to better know one another, she organized potluck suppers. She raised money and collected and distributed food to help those in need.
She visited shut-ins, founded a learning center at Windsor Hills Elementary-Middle School and helped illiterate adults learn to read. She also taught sewing.
For a decade, she sponsored a chess club at the school for elementary students.
And even though she moved to The Villa in 1996, she rode buses across town to Windsor Hills, where she remained a member of the neighborhood association, "keeping the ministry that occupied her for 30 years close to her heart," observed The Catholic Review.
"She was easily recognizable during her trips by the paper bags she carried with her day's necessities and by the eclectic collection of hats she wore," said an obituary in Enews, a publication of her order. "She will be missed for her legendary kindness and her sense of humor that never failed."
An article in the Urbanite monthly magazine described her as the "living bridge to Windsor Hills' past."
"She was volunteering until last year, and only a month before she died, she called and asked if there was anything she could do," said Nancy M. Gallo, who is the Windsor Hills Elementary-Middle School secretary.
"I've known her since 2005, and she came faithfully. She was always very positive and encouraging, never negative," said Ms. Gallo. "She was a very loving person and always there for you. If you had a problem, she always took the time to listen."
Ms. Gallo said the "students loved her" and that she "enjoyed going up to the special-education classroom to read to the students."
"What a great woman and a marvelous character, who did great work in Windsor Hills," said the Rev. Michael J. Roach, pastor of St. Bartholomew Roman Catholic Church in Manchester and an old friend.
"She was very much one in the Mercy tradition of being on the street working with and taking care of the poor. That was their postulate," said Father Roach. "She was a classic Sister of Mercy."
Sister Mary Ferdinand was a music fan.
A Mass of Christian burial was offered June 10 at The Villa.
Surviving are four nieces.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun