I have known generous people, philanthropists and committed activists. I have known avid volunteers dedicating themselves to community service. I have worked with passionate educators holding advanced degrees.
Only once have I known a “saint on earth.”
Whether she would be deemed worthy of saintly designation by the Vatican, I am unsure. She never turned water into wine, nor did she walk on water. The miracles accomplished by diminutive School Sister of Notre Dame (SSND) Hilda Marie Sutherland — the “Mother Teresa of East Baltimore” — were of the human variety. She touched the lives of thousands of women who attended Baltimore’s historic high school for girls, the Institute of Notre Dame (IND).
“Sister Hildie” died March 14, 10 days prior to her 87th birthday. Her death has left a void in the lives of many. Her funeral on March 23, filled the massive Cathedral of Mary Our Queen to capacity.
In her humble way, Sister Hildie transformed lives, not through political power or fame. She did what came as naturally to her as breathing: She loved people without judging them. Not once in the 40 years of our friendship, did I ever hear Hildie say she felt sorry for anyone. Her capacity to empathize was more powerful than pity. She truly loved the poor with the same love she had for the students and families of her school, which she always called “home.”
Serving over 60 years of her religious vocation at IND, Hildie was not a classroom teacher. She entered the order at a young age and found her calling in service through hospitality, housekeeping, working in the school’s bookstore and a myriad of daily tasks involving student life. She knew every inch of the 19th century building located on Aisquith Street where she lived in the school’s convent until 2016.
In today’s world, where some focus on competition and status, we hear too often from those who fear losing their material wealth, be it through complaints about paying taxes or supporting those deemed undeserving of “hard-earned dollars.” Such points of view were alien to Hildie. Each year at Thanksgiving, Hildie and her student helpers prepared boxes filled with the fixings necessary for holiday meals, even turkeys, for her Latrobe neighbors. And she would shop with her own money at local dollar stores in order to buy small treats for elderly SSNDs confined to their beds at the order’s infirmary. She’d buy bread, peanut butter and jelly to make sandwiches for any IND students who sat without a lunch at school. Never would she embarrass anyone; nor would she expect public recognition for her generosity.
I was formerly the school’s theatre director and we often rehearsed at night. Hildie’s words after sitting with me in the lobby awaiting parents arriving to take home their exhausted daughters, remain fixed in my memory. “Good night, Hon. I’m going upstairs now to say my prayers. See you in the morning.”
Off she would go, sometimes close to 11 p.m., only to be back at her pre-dawn post, greeting students early the next day.
Before Hildie’s funeral, one of her devoted friends, an IND alumna, took me by the hand, directing me, “wear this for Hildie and our city.” Then she handed me a blue and white wristband with this inscription: “BMore Hildie.”
I can think of nothing more inspiring for Baltimore than the legacy of Sister Hildie as we begin Holy Week 2019.
Carolyn Buck (email@example.com) is a teaching artist at Baltimore Center Stage.