Sister Mary Gertrude Hardin, whose long and varied career included teaching young boys in an orphanage and counseling prostitutes and drug addicts from their jail cells, died of cancer Wednesday at The Villa, her order's retirement home in the Woodbrook section of Baltimore County. She was 84.
Born Claire Anita Hardin, she was raised in the Ashburton section of Baltimore and educated by the Sisters of Mercy at St. Cecelia's School and Mount St. Agnes High School.
In 1940, she entered the Religious Sisters of Mercy. Six years later, she professed her vows, taking the name Sister Mary Gertrude, and embarked upon a career that took her to several states and landed her jobs with varied missions.
After receiving her bachelor's degree in education from Mount St. Agnes College in 1963 and a master's degree in remedial reading from Loyola College in 1967, she took assignments in Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
She also taught in Maryland at the Old St. Vincent's Male Orphan Asylum, Mount Washington Country School for Boys, Mount St. Agnes Lower School, Immaculate Heart of Mary School, Holy Family School in Randallstown, St. Mary's School in Rockville and Immaculate Conception School in Washington.
Sister Gertrude, though, said that her most fulfilling and exciting ministry was as resident director of the Nicky Cruz Girls' Home in Raleigh, N.C., where she worked with troubled youth from April 1973 to November 1975.
"She was a remarkable person who would go wherever she felt she was called by the Lord," said her nephew, Melvin F. Polek of Cockeysville. "At that time, Mercy was getting more involved in the community, rather than just staying within the church, so when she left, she was a bit of a pioneer."
Sister Gertrude's life in North Carolina was like nothing she had experienced before, she would later tell family and friends. The home was not run by the church but was created by a private charity, started by its namesake, Nicky Cruz, a former gang leader and drug addict who began programs based on prayers he said saved him.
Sister Gertrude's work at the girls' home brought her in contact with people who seemingly had little hope. She met with prostitutes, alcoholics and drug addicts. She counseled them, visited them in jail and appeared in court on their behalf.
"She had an ability to communicate, to meet people wherever they were," her nephew said. "It didn't matter where they were or where they'd been."
After working with a similar population at the Joseph's Home for Boys in Statesboro, Ga., Sister Gertrude returned to Baltimore in 1985.
She worked in patient services and employee health at Stella Maris in Timonium before retiring in 1991. But even then, she continued to help those in need. She tutored at the Learning Bank in Baltimore, then volunteered at the Govans Family Health Center and at The Villa.
A citation she earned as a volunteer at the Learning Bank said, "Her strongest point is her healthy outlook on life. Sister is always willing to listen and offer her presence and friendly advice to staff or clients."
Age and illness slowed her down in the last years of her life, but Sister Gertrude would not be still.
"She had a motorized wheelchair," her nephew recalled. "She was a terror, speeding around on that thing."
A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 11 a.m. today at The Villa, 6806 Bellona Ave.
In addition to Mr. Polek, she is survived by another nephew, Robert J. Polek; and two nieces, Claire M. Culp and Carol Mullen.