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Sister Irene Marshiano, founder of the Franciscan Center, dies at 70

Sister Irene Marshiano, a nun who offered sandwiches and coffee "with respect" at the Franciscan Center she founded 45 years ago, died of complications from diabetes Oct. 31 at her order's Clare Court Convent in Northeast Baltimore. She was 70.

Born in New York City's Harlem and raised in the Bronx, she was the daughter of a Hertz rental car mechanic and a homemaker. After graduating from St. Helena's High School in the Bronx, she entered a Franciscan convent, but she soon experienced health problems and was asked to leave.

"The sisters felt her stamina too fragile for life in the convent," said Sister Marcia Lunz, a fellow Franciscan sister who lives in Milwaukee. "But as Maria says in 'The Sound of Music,' 'When God closes a door, he opens a window.' "

She turned to a different Roman Catholic religious order, the Franciscan Sisters of Baltimore, and asked if she could join and work in special education or their other missions. She joined the congregation Feb. 2, 1964, the Feast of Candlemas.

In an interview published this year by her order, she recalled a rowhouse owned by the sisters adjacent to a convent and special-education school in the Old Goucher neighborhood. The rowhouse, at 2212 Maryland Ave., was little used by a Jesuit priest-missionary who was frequently away from Baltimore.

The mother superior, or provincial, wanted the home to be put to a charitable use. The order had a gift of $200 worth of stock in a natural gas utility from a Philadelphia couple to fund the effort.

"We asked the neighborhood what they needed, and they asked for emergency food and clothing. I was asked to direct the center," Sister Irene said in the interview. The Franciscan Center opened in September 1968 and soon found people seeking its food and donated clothing.

"I was so excited because we served 30 people the first month," Sister Irene said in a 1979 Evening Sun article. "But it was a matter of them finding us."

In the interview published by her order, she said, "Recognizing the dignity of each human being and serving people with respect was the most important aspect of the center."

She said that her project initially encountered skepticism. A priest told her the center would not last the year. But as food stamps were cut back and the state's mental hospitals closed, she said, she had more and more people calling. By 1979, she and her volunteers were serving 200 lunches a day to men in the dining room. She also sought donations and distributed used clothing.

"Our volunteer staff grew every time I would speak to a group of people to solicit food donations," she said earlier this year.

The Evening Sun article described her: "Her round, cherubic face is as gentle as her manner. At 35, she has traded her nun's habit for plain, unfashionable street clothes."

She accepted donations of money from individuals and churches.

"She doesn't believe in accepting money from other subsidies because she doesn't want to be told who is eligible for the center's food," according to the Evening Sun article. She also turned down a Christmas basket from a family who requested that the recipient be white.

The Evening Sun article said she found a type of person who needed her help: "unemployed alcoholic men who wait each day for two sandwiches and a cup of coffee."

"They line up for lunch patiently, sober and unshaven. Many have craggy, weathered faces from living on the city sidewalks. They stand in coats too large and pants too short. Some wear no socks on a winter day," the article said.

The article said the men ate peanut butter-and-apple sauce or bologna-and-cheese sandwiches

"The center opened at a time when poverty and civil unrest in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. left hope in short supply in Baltimore," said a fellow Franciscan, Sister Ellen Carr.

Sister Irene directed the center for 17 years. After suffering a heart attack, she gave up the post and worked in other ministries. The center kept up its work and began serving hot lunches and assisting the poor with counselors. The Weinberg Foundation and other donors gave funds for a new building near the original site.

In 1979, she received the Woman of the Year Award from the Maryland Colonial Society. The award said, "She has devoted her entire life to the service of mankind and has lived the philosophy of service with love."

In 1995, she greeted and shook hands with Pope John Paul II during his visit to Baltimore.

"Sister Irene's vision, faith and love continue to inspire us as we carry on the work she began more than 45 years ago. Her beautiful spirit lives on here at the Franciscan Center, and in the lives that we touch with our ministry," said Sister Ellen, who lives in Baltimore.

Sister Irene visited the center in September for an event to mark the anniversary of its founding.

A memorial Mass was held Nov. 2 at the convent.

She donated her body to science.

Survivors include a brother, Eugene Marshiano of Port St. Lucie, Fla.

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