Sister Hildie Sutherland, a mainstay at the Institute of Notre Dame and founder of Hildie's Helpers, a food donation project that has been in existence for more than 60 years, died March 14. She was 86.
Sister Hildie was known for her generous spirit, which extended beyond the walls of the school into the surrounding neighborhood, which included Latrobe Homes, a public housing development in East Baltimore.
“She took care of them. They took care of her,” said Jeanne Oswald. Mrs. Oswald and her three sisters graduated from the school. “It wasn’t just the community inside. She also took care of the community outside.”
Mrs. Oswald remembered packing potatoes and onions for families — all under the watchful eyes of Sister Hildie’s program Hildie's Helpers — when she attended the school in the late 1970s. She knew that Sister Hildie continued to spearhead efforts to provide food to the needy until she died. That included providing turkeys to families during Thanksgiving and warm clothes and coats during cold months.
“She’s probably one of the greatest people I’ve ever known,” Mrs. Oswald said.
She was born Marjorie Helen Sutherland on March 24, 1932, to Marjorie Jane and David Sutherland, who were married in New Jersey before moving to Maryland. One of nine children, Sister Hildie was in first grade when her mother died giving birth. She and her siblings were raised as orphans when their father could not care for them.
“All of us being still very young, we were then raised under the careful guidance of the good Sisters of Charity (Daughters of Charity) at Saint Mary’s Villa in Baltimore,” Sister Hildie wrote in her autobiography while a candidate for the sisterhood.
Sister Hildie received her bonnet from the School Sisters of Notre Dame on Aug. 28, 1949. She took the name Sister Hilda Marie to honor the headmistress at St. Mary’s. Sister Hildie took her first vows in July 1953 and her final vows in July 1959.
Sister Hildie’s first job as a sister was as the girls’ prefect for St. Vincent School in Tacony, Pa., from 1953 to 1954. From there, she worked briefly in the sisters’ refectory at Our Lady of the Holy Angels in Fort Lee, N.J. She came back to the Institute of Notre Dame in October 1954. It was at the Institute of Notre Dame that she was affectionately called “Hildie.” There, she held positions of director of housekeeping, manager of the bookstore, director of hospitality and director of plant operations.
Sister Hildie was trained as a house sister, according to Sister Kathleen Feeley, president emeritus of Notre Dame of Maryland University, who worked with Sister Hildie about a decade ago when Sister Feeley worked as interim president at the Institute of Notre Dame. The position of house sister, which no longer exists, allowed Sister Hildie to receive religious training but not education, Sister Feeley said.
“She had her own special mode of education, and that was she paid attention,” Sister Feeley explained. “She paid attention to everyone who came into her purview. I think that’s why she was able to touch lives very deeply.”
Sister Hildie made an impact wherever she went, according to colleagues and alumnae.
She was short in stature. She stood about 4-foot-8 inches tall. But she was fearless.
Her dedicated outreach to the surrounding neighborhoods is the reason the school was spared during the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, according to the staff at the school.
“It was because of their respect for Sister Hildie,” said Michael Reeb, the school’s English and journalism teacher. “Her work in the community protected the school. …There was just this bond that you don’t see enough in society. You can‘t take that away.”
Sister Hildie was extremely witty. Friends said that she loved putting a smile on the face of others.
“She liked to make everyone laugh. She was cool,” said Chef Nancy Longo, an alumna of the Institute of Notre Dame who is the owner of Pierpoint Restaurant in Fells Point. The restaurant was a gathering spot Sunday afternoon for alumnae who toasted to Sister Hildie’s memory. They drank Jameson, which was Sister Hildie’s favorite drink. “A lot of people talk about nuns and they say how fast they tried to get away from her. With her, it was how fast they could find her.”
In addition to making scrumptious meatballs and a mean tuna fish sandwich, Sister Hildie always greeted people with the phrase: “Hi, hon.”
That phrase — so popular in Baltimore vernacular — became synonymous with Sister Hildie.
“She called everybody hon. Yet she knew your name,” Mrs. Oswald said. “The way she affected thousands and thousands of people, it’s amazing.”
A funeral Mass will be offered at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at the Cathedral of Mary our Queen, 5200 N. Charles St.