Sister Mary Neil Corcoran, longtime director of the Esperanza Center and advocate for Baltimore's Hispanic community

Sister Mary Neil Corcoran, a Sister of Mercy and former college professor who was the longtime director of the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s Esperanza Center, died Sunday of complications from a stroke at Stella Maris Hospice in Timonium.

The Towson resident was 91.

“What I loved about Sister Mary Neil was her unwavering commitment to people and especially the immigrant community,” said William J. McCarthy, executive director of Catholic Charities.

“She saw the need for health care and legal services at the Esperanza Center. There was nothing that she wouldn’t do for our new neighbors to become fully integrated and a part of our community,” Mr. McCarthy said.

“She had great faith and was so determined. Mary Neil’s heart and footprints are all over the work that is done there today,” he said.

Valerie Twanmoh has been director of the Esperanza Center since 2011.

“She was an amazing person with a capacity of love and respect for people like few I’ve ever known. She was devoted to serving those who were underserved,” Ms. Twanmoh said.

“She treated everyone no matter what their culture or level of education with warmth and compassion and she was compassionate to all she met,” she said. “She put her heart and soul into the Esperanza Center and made it what it is today.”

“Sister Mary Neil was one of the great ones. She and her sister, Elizabeth Anne Corcoran, also a Sister of Mercy, are among the best,” said the Rev. Michael J. Roach, pastor of St. Bartholomew Roman Catholic Church in Manchester, and a friend of many years.

“I thought a lot of her. She was a very gracious woman and never overbearing,” Father Roach said. “She was a good, welcoming presence and was perfect for her job. She really was a dynamo.”

The daughter of J. Neil Corcoran, a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. worker, and Elizabeth Anne Daily, a homemaker, Elizabeth Anne Corcoran was born in Baltimore and raised on North Calvert Street in a Charles Village rowhouse.

Then known as Betty Anne Corcoran, she was a 1944 graduate of Mount Saint Agnes High School and entered the Sisters of Mercy novitiate at Mount St. Agnes in Mount Washington in 1945.

She professed her vows in 1946 and was given the name of Mary Neil, after her father.

Sister Mary Neil earned a bachelor’s degree in 1951 in Spanish from the old Mount Saint Agnes College and a master’s degree in Romance languages in 1960 from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Beginning in 1948, she taught in elementary and secondary schools in Washington, Savannah, Ga., and Baltimore that were operated by the Sisters of Mercy, and taught at Mount Saint Agnes High School from 1955 to 1961.

“She taught me in high school when I was a senior,” said Sister Patricia Smith, a Sister of Mercy who lives in Roland Park. “Years later, she was my student when I was teaching a course on Mary, Jesus’ mother, at St. Mary’s Seminary.”

She said that Sister Mary Neil was always sought out by alumnae attending Mount Saint Agnes High School reunions.

“They always said that she had been their favorite teacher,” Sister Patricia said. “They had great affection for her, and the last class here was 1963.”

In 1961, she traveled to Spain, where she studied for a year at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, and the next year returned to Baltimore and joined the faculty of Mount Saint Agnes College, where she taught Romance languages.

She returned to the University of Navarra in 1966 and earned a doctorate in Spanish in 1967. She again returned to Mount Saint Agnes, where she was an associate professor until 1971. After the college merged with what is now Loyola University Maryland, she continued teaching until 1975 .

Sister Mary Neil left academia in 1975 when she was named a program director of what was then the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s Hispanic Apostolate, where one of her top priorities was a program teaching English as a second language.

She had first become involved with the apostolate when she served on its board in 1963 at its founding in a single classroom at St. Ann’s School at 22nd Street and Greenmount Avenue. It later relocated to 25th and Calvert streets, and finally to its present home on South Broadway in Fells Point.

“In Baltimore, there never has been a Hispanic neighborhood, or section, a place where you can even survive without speaking English,” Sister Mary Neil told The Baltimore Sun in a 1993 interview. “Here, when you have to go to look for a job, or a place to stay, you can only do this if you can communicate in English, at least minimally.”

In the mid-1980s, Archbishop William D. Borders named her coordinator of Hispanic ministry for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and in 1990, she became director of what is now the Esperanza Center.

“I get to do what I think the Lord asks us all to do and practice the Beatitudes,” Sister Mary Neil told the Catholic Review in 2001. “I get so much satisfaction. People are just so appreciative, warm and loving. I mean, who wouldn’t love it?”

Sister Mary Neil, a diminutive woman with steel-gray hair, rimless gold glasses and a deep reservoir of energy, was called “Hermana,” the Spanish word for “Sister,” by her Hispanic friends and students at the apostolate.

“She was a tough lady from the standpoint that if she was unhappy with you, she’d let you know it,” Ms. Twanmoh said with a laugh.

“And you always knew where she stood on anything. She was always clear and articulate, and this helped her greatly in her advocacy for the Hispanic community,” Sister Patricia said.

“Her will was contagious, and she was certainly not bashful,” Mr. McCarthy said.

“While she was a warm and welcoming presence, she was no pushover, either to the students and the volunteers she pursued to teach English or provide medical services,” reported The Sun in 2002.

The one thing she repeatedly stressed was the need for immigrants to learn English.

“I’ve always felt it was important for them to learn English, because you want to see them get ahead and succeed and not be so dependent on other people,” Sister Mary Neil said in the 2002 Sun article.

And because she was aware that her students had jobs, she organized the English classes to make them as flexible as possible.

“My thinking is if they get a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant, they can’t go to the manager and say, ‘I can’t come to work tomorrow because I have to study English,’ ” she told the newspaper.

In addition to her work at the apostolate, Sister Mary Neil was the Hispanic chaplain at the City Detention Center.

Even though she retired in 2002, Sister Mary Neil continued volunteering at the Esperanza Center, and until recently was still driving her car to Fells Point, friends said — but had learned of the convenience of Uber.

Her work brought her many awards, which included the Distinguished Service Award from the Federation of Hispanic Organizations, Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Award, the first annual Guadalupe Award presented by the Archdiocese of Baltimore in 2000 and the Governor’s Award for Distinguished Service to Hispanics.

“Even though she had received many honors, she never made a great deal about it,” said Sister Patricia.

Sister Mary Neil enjoyed aerobics and playing tennis.

“She had such a life and was an inspiration to me and so many other people,” Ms. Twanmoh said.

A Mass of Christian burial for Sister Mary Neil will be offered at 10:30 a.m. Thursday in the chapel at Stella Maris, 2300 Dulaney Valley Road, Timonium.

In addition to her sister, who lives in Towson, she is survived by a brother, J. Clark Corcoran of Timonium; and several; nieces and nephews.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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