Sister Genevieve Kunkel
(Handout photo)

Sister Genevieve Kunkel, a professed member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame for 78 years who was known for her spirit and positive attitude, died Wednesday at the age of 101 from complications after hip surgery.

Sister Genevieve was a participant in the "nun study," which has tracked more than 600 members of the School Sisters since 1986 to learn more about aging and Alzheimer's disease. Her sunny approach to life was featured in a book published about the study, titled "Aging with Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier and More Meaningful Lives."


"My philosophy as a woman, a religious and a teacher has always been to be grateful for the past, enthusiastic about the present and confident about the future," she said in a chapter in the 2001 book on the effect of happiness and gratitude on longevity.

An example of someone who retained her cognitive skills late into her life, Sister Genevieve appeared on national television with epidemiologist Dr. David Snowdon, who began the study of nuns and aging, and in 2004, she testified before Congress in support of funding for Alzheimer's research.

Genevieve Louise Kunkel was born Jan. 3, 1911, in Baltimore to Joseph Anthony and Dorothea Eva (Becker) Kunkel, the oldest of nine children. Her father and his brother founded Kunkel Pianos in 1905.

"She was devoted to her parents and her family," said Sister Frances Marie Usher, her friend for many years. "She would tell me stories about her family, about how her mother was in bed with a baby more than she was around the house.

"And she told me how her mother asked her father for a cook. She said, 'I need a cook. I want to go with you on your business trips and the babies are starting to come and I don't know that much about cooking anyway.'"

Sister Genevieve earned a bachelor's degree in English and history in 1932 from what is now Notre Dame of Maryland University and later that year entered the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Baltimore. All her sisters earned degrees there, a fact that made her immensely proud, Sister Frances recalled.

She was given the religious name Mary Nicholas after her brother, Nicholas, who was then preparing to become a Jesuit priest. "She had the most beautiful things to say about him," Sister Frances said.

She professed her first vows in August 1934 and her final vows in 1940, the same year she earned a master's degree in English from Boston College.

Sister Genevieve, who resumed using her given name later in her career, went on to teach secondary school English, along with history, French and Spanish. She also coached debate teams.

During her long teaching career, she was assigned to St. Mary School of Bryantown; Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Mission Church High School) in Roxbury, Mass.; St. Patrick School in Cumberland, where she was superior of the house and principal of the school from 1953 to 1956, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Tampa, Fla., where she was principal of the K-12 school and supervisor of all School Sisters schools in Florida from 1956 to 1961.

"She loved her years teaching English in Boston the most," Sister Frances said of the school where Sister Genevieve taught for 19 years. "And she could still quote from all the things she taught during those years."

In 1961, she became director of sister education and supervisor of secondary schools for the Baltimore Province of her congregation, based at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. She supervised high school teachers while traveling from Florida to New Jersey and advised sisters pursuing degrees. In 1980, she became a consultant in education for the province.

In 1990, at age 79, Sister Genevieve moved to Villa Assumpta, home to retired sisters, in Baltimore County to offer pastoral care to other sisters. She moved to Maria Health Care Center, the nursing center adjacent to Villa Assumpta, in 2008, remaining an avid reader who also took great pleasure in music until the end of her life.

Sister Genevieve died Wednesday at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, and, in accordance with her wishes, her body was donated to medical research. As part of Dr. Snowdon's study, which examined sisters' early writings, then conducted cognitive and physiological testing after the age of 75, participating nuns agreed to donate their brains to research after death.


She is survived by two sisters, Irene Froehlich of Timonium, and Maureen Storch of Macungie, Pa., and many nieces and nephews.

A memorial Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Sept. 29 in the chapel at Villa Assumpta.