Sister Carol Estelle Wheeler, the longtime principal and president of Mercy High School, died of heart failure May 15 at Stella Maris in Timonium. She was 84 and had been a Sister of Mercy for 62 years.
“Sister Carol was a force of nature,” said a former student, Lynne Spigelmire Viti. “She was not so much older than her students when she came to teach at Mercy in 1961. She was formidable in her quiet, measured way.
“She had a tough mind and a tender heart, calling us out when we committed infractions — such as sneaking into class a few minutes late in the back door to the classroom during the opening prayer.
“She had eyes in the back of her head, and though she faced the crucifix in the front of the room with her back to us, she knew what was going on, and never failed to issue detentions to scofflaws. We quickly learned to observe the rules diligently, and we respected her, without question,” said Dr. Viti, a Wellesley College lecturer emerita in the writing program.
Born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, she was the daughter of Frederick G. Wheeler and his wife, Agnes Estelle Ryan. She attended St. Mary’s School and was a 1954 graduate of Bishop Toolen High School.
She earned an English degree at Maryville College of the Sacred Heart in St. Louis.
She entered the Sisters of Mercy in 1959 when she was 22 years old and began her novice years in her order’s Mount Washington campus, which included Mount St. Agnes College and High School. She was given the name Sister Seraphia and later returned to her baptismal name, Carol Estelle.
In a memoir, she said her decision to enter the convent may have been influenced by her own mother, and by her maternal grandmother, “who was a very prayerful woman, and may have prayed me into the convent.”
She also said, “I was trying to make sense of things, and I did a great deal of reading, much of it not allowed!”
She joined the faculty of the newly opened Mercy High School in Northeast Baltimore.
After seven years at Mercy High, where she found that she loved teaching and easily related to her adolescent students, she returned for one year to her alma mater, Bishop Toolen High School in Mobile.
She spent the next few years at Georgetown University in Washington and earned a master’s degree in philosophy in 1971. She earned a second master’s degree in education from the University of Chicago.
In 1976 she returned to Mercy High School, where she would remain for many years.
“She was quiet, very measured, with a soft Southern accent. She was a woman of enormous intellect and creativity. She was a fine scholar as well,” said Mary Beth Lennon, a former student who is Mercy High School president. “She was committed to elevating the role of women in society. She was a transformative leader at Mercy.”
In 1977 she was named principal of the school, and later, principal and president. She retained the title of president until her retirement in 2013, after which she continued as an educational consultant.
“During her years at Mercy High, she faced many challenges, but always focused on lifting up the school, consulting with business persons and academic authorities,” said Sister Augusta Reilly, a fellow Sister of Mercy. “She made sure that Mercy offered the highest level of academics, including classes in areas such as philosophy, future studies, and literary analysis.”
She also said her students and those she advised admired her and recognized she was an exceptional teacher.
“She demonstrated a caring interest in each young woman and respected their individuality,” said Sister Augusta Reilly.
“She loved literature and widened our horizons through the novels, short stories and poetry she taught us to dissect, deconstruct, and grow to love as much as she did,” said Dr. Viti. “In senior year creative English, we became as enchanted just as she was, by Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of her favorite poets, and T.S. Eliot. I doubt that many high school students in that era, the 1960s, or even today plunged headlong into Hopkins’ long poem ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ or Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets.’ But we did, under her tutelage.”
Sister Carol established the Catherine McAuley Honors Program and a mentoring program. She also set up a Women In Medicine Program with Mercy Medical Center.
She oversaw construction of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Auditorium and the Dorothy Williams Bunting Science Center.
Survivors include a sister, Erin Wheeler of Mobile, Alabama.
A graveside service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at Woodlawn Cemetery. A memorial Mass of remembrance will be celebrated at 10:00 a.m. Saturday, June 26, at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church on Loch Raven Boulevard.