Mary Elizabeth "Betty" Sweeney, whose career as administrative assistant to Cardinal Lawrence Shehan, Archbishop William Borders and Cardinal William H. Keeler spanned more than 40 years, died in her sleep Tuesday at Stella Maris Hospice in Timonium. She was 86.
Miss Sweeney was born in Baltimore, the oldest of seven children, and grew up in Govans. She was a 1940 graduate of Towson Catholic High School and entered the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1942.
During World War II, she was a stenographer at Fort Holabird and taught at parochial schools in Annapolis and Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
After leaving her order in 1951, she began her long career with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, working at the Catholic Center on Cathedral Street.
"She was extremely efficient in her dedication to the office," Cardinal Keeler said. "She had a strong personal piety, which expressed itself in her attachment to the School Sisters of Notre Dame."
For her long service to the Roman Catholic Church, Miss Sweeney was awarded the Holy Cross and was named a dame commander with Star of the Order of St. Gregory.
"At one time, she was the most powerful woman in the archdiocese and reigned supreme at the Catholic Center. Everyone knew her," said the Rev. Michael J. Roach, pastor of St. Bartholomew Roman Catholic Church in Manchester. "She was the ideal executive assistant and discretion itself."
He added: "She also had a great guttural laugh, and when she laughed, the room shook."
Monsignor Paul G. Cook, pastor of St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Cockeysville, is a longtime friend.
"I first came to know her 50 years ago when the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen opened. We didn't have a secretary, so Betty volunteered to come up to the cathedral rectory in the evening and handle the first rector Monsignor Thomas A. Whelan's correspondence," Monsignor Cook recalled.
Miss Sweeney continued handling correspondence - all on a volunteer basis - for then-Archbishop Shehan after he moved into the rectory in 1960, and then took a full-time job with him after the death of Archbishop Francis P. Keough in 1961.
"She was a very compassionate and a very sociable person, and in her job she had to handle all of the difficult phone calls and mail," Monsignor Cook said.
Miss Sweeney also volunteered at Villa Assumpta, the retirement community of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
After retiring from the archdiocese in 1994, Miss Sweeney played a pivotal role in and spent many months helping to plan for the 1995 visit to Baltimore of Pope John Paul II.
Miss Sweeney was in her 50s when she returned to college and earned a bachelor's degree in 1981 from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.
The former longtime Cross Keys resident had lived at Mercy Ridge in Timonium since 2001.
"Bet was not an Auntie Mame. I was 20 before I realized she could be fun" said a niece, M. Rosewin Sweeney, of Baltimore. "Then I saw she had a real sense of adventure and was open to new experiences. How many 60-year-old women take swimming lessons?"
Miss Sweeney recalled her aunt as very attentive to her many nieces and nephews.
A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Friday at Villa Assumpta, 6401 N. Charles St.
Also surviving are two brothers, John J. Sweeney Jr. of Timonium and William B. Sweeney of Anneslie; and a sister, Patricia A. Wolfe of Timonium.