Sister Mary Aurelia Benedetto, a member of the Sisters of Mercy who used her skills as an educator and an administrator working with the poor and the elderly of Baltimore, died Nov. 23 at Columbus Regional Medical Center in Georgia of complications from a fall. She was 86.
Sister Mary Aurelia, who had lived since 2003 at The Villa, an assisted-living facility in the Woodbrook section of Baltimore County that her order shares with the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart, had been visiting friends in Columbus at the time of her fall.
She was born Elizabeth Mercedes Benedetto in Macon, Ga., the youngest of seven children of an Italian immigrant commercial laundry owner and a homemaker.
After graduating from Mount de Sales Academy in Macon, Sister Mary Aurelia entered the Sisters of Mercy in Baltimore and made the final profession of her vows in 1947.
From the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, she was a teacher and an administrator at parochial schools in Savannah, Macon and Columbus, Ga.
Sister Mary Aurelia had been a teacher and later principal of Blessed Sacrament Parochial School in Savannah from 1966 to 1973, when she came to St. Peter the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in Southwest Baltimore.
From 1973 to 1978, she was co-administrator with Sister Mary Jeanette Edwards of the church's Christian Life Center and ran a hot-lunch program for the elderly of the parish.
The Rev. Michael J. Roach, former pastor of St. Peter's who is now at St. Bartholomew Roman Catholic Church in Manchester, described her as "a great woman" who was "tall and distinguished-looking."
"She and Sister Jeanette were stalwarts of St. Peter's, and when the school closed, they went up and down the alleys and streets in the neighborhood helping people at a time of clerical transition," said Father Roach. "Their names are still spoken about [in] the streets of Southwest Baltimore."
When her assignment at St. Peter's was coming to an end, Sister Louis Mary Battle, who worked for the Archdiocese of Baltimore's Cardinal Shehan Center for the Aging, spoke to her about the need for a halfway house for people older than 60 who lived alone and were not yet dependent on home nursing care.
The Cardinal Shehan Center had proposed renovating the old Blessed Sacrament Parochial School on Old York Road into an alternative residence for the elderly, and it turned to Sister Mary Aurelia and her friend, Sister Jeanette, to plan and manage the facility.
In 1979, the facility opened with 14 elderly residents who came from a variety of faiths and economic backgrounds.
It was Sister Mary Aurelia and Sister Jeanette's plan that residents could bring objects such as chairs or teacups from the former homes in order to make their new ones comfortable and familiar.
During their days together and because of the nature of the work at St. Peter's and later at the Blessed Sacrament residence, both nuns began wearing street clothes.
"I wasn't unhappy with the old way — wearing a habit, living in convents," Sister Mary Aurelia told McCall's Magazine in a 1982 interview.
"But with the changes in the church, we can choose our own work now. We're afforded closer contact with people. We can see for ourselves where the need is most acute," she said.
After leaving Blessed Sacrament, Sister Mary Aurelia returned to Savannah, where she was director of personnel for St. Joseph Hospital from 1984 to 1994.
She volunteered in the outreach program at St. Anne's Roman Catholic Church in Columbus, Ga., from 1998 to 2003, when she returned to Baltimore and took up residence at The Villa, where she continued volunteering in various programs.
"She never truly retired," said Sister Margaret Downing, a member of the Sisters of Mercy and a close friend. "She was one of the most generous, warm women I've ever known. Her door was always open, and she was willing to take on something extra."
Sister Mary Faith McKean, also a member of the order, had been a close friend for nearly 50 years.
"We had been stationed together in various places, and she had been my superior," said Sister Mary Faith.
"Her death leaves a gap the size of the Grand Canyon. She was always totally available to everyone and never played favorites," she said. "She was a good friend to everybody."
Sister Mary Faith said that because Sister Mary Aurelia was the youngest in her family, she had been "spoiled rotten with love as a child" and wanted to "reflect that back."
Sister Mary Aurelia, who enjoyed reading and traveling, never lost her gentle Southern accent.
"She had the best Southern accent, and I used to love hearing her pronounce her name, 'Aurelia Benedettoe,'" recalled Father Roach. "Also, there was no getting old with Sister Aurelia."
"She was interested in anything new, whether it was the liturgy or culturally. Several weeks ago, she had gone to the Baltimore Museum of Art to see the Andy Warhol exhibit," said Sister Mary Faith.
Sister Mary Aurelia was joined in the religious life by two of her brothers, who became priests, and a sister, who was also a nun.
Reflecting on her life in the McCall's interview, she said, "It wasn't that married life and family didn't appeal to me — I grew up in such a happy family. It was just a question of which road to follow, and I took this one."
Sister Mary Aurelia donated her body to the Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon. A memorial Mass will be offered at 11 a.m. Saturday at The Villa, 6806 Bellona Ave.
Surviving are two sisters, Mary Witte of Rockledge, Fla., and Sister Mary Arnold Benedetto of Miami, who is a member of the Dominican order; and many nieces and nephews.