Sister Marie Foley, a retired Mercy High School faculty member who counseled students for four decades, died of complications from Alzheimer's disease Friday at her order's Baltimore County retirement convent.

She was 86 and had been a Sister of Mercy for 66 years.

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Born in Watertown, S.D., she was the daughter of Marie Rogers and Andrew Foley.

According to a biography supplied by her order, she came to Baltimore in 1948 as a lay student at the former Mount Saint Agnes College in Mount Washington.

"She quickly earned a reputation as a highly competitive athlete and a fun-loving free spirit who was not noticeably enthusiastic about the academic side of college life," said a religious colleague, Sister Augusta Reilly. "When she decided to apply for admission to the Mercy novitiate midway through her sophomore year, some of the sister faculty questioned her readiness. Nonetheless, she was welcomed into the Mercy community in February 1950."

Sister Marie earned a bachelor's degree at Mount Saint Agnes and taught at the old Mount Washington Country School for Boys, and later at St. Mary's School in Mobile, Ala. Students there recalled that she was a ready companion at recess and joined in on kickball games.

"Sister Marie's talent for bringing out the best in challenging children did not go unnoticed by her provincial superior, Mother Stella Maris Bergin," Sister Augusta said. "She saw Sister Marie as just the person to answer the demand for developing special education programs at Catholic elementary schools."

In 1966, she earned a master's degree in psychology and special education from Cardinal Stritch University in Wisconsin. Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s she headed special education programs for the Baltimore and Atlanta archdioceses.

She took a sabbatical of independent study at Michigan State University and, upon returning to Baltimore, Sister Marie joined the Mercy High School faculty. She served at the school from 1973 to 2013.

She became the school's director of human development. She created a guidance model where faculty assigned each student to a "home group" mentored by a adviser who looked out for them daily.

"She was much more than a guidance counselor," said Sister Barbara Wheeley, with whom she worked. "In college prep she advised students to go out of state to broaden their horizons. She had a real ability to help the students who were having trouble, possibly because of her years in special education. She encouraged them along. She just had a gift."

Sister Carol Wheeler, Mercy High School's former head of school and president, recalled Sister Marie's years at the school.

"She was widely respected, and people had an affection for her. Her role was so strong — she also helped parents interact with their daughters," Sister Carol said. "She had a fearlessness. She felt if you want to do something and it had merit, you should always make it happen."

Sister Carol recalled her colleague as upbeat and gracious.

"She was forward-thinking," she said. "She had an energy for life and was exceedingly kind. She was an attentive person who cared for individuals as well as groups."

On a major birthday, friends made a newspaper about her life. In it, they recalled her handwriting — hard to read.

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They also recalled her fierce personal discretion.

"Talking to her was like talking to a tombstone," said Sister Carol about Sister Marie's ability to keep matters confidential. "That was why so many people went to her."

Mary Beth Lennon, president of Mercy High School, said Sister Marie "had a formidable intellect and cared deeply for her students. We have been overwhelmed with expressions of sympathy from our alumnae. I can recall her in the hallways as she saw a student. She'd be saying, 'Think Harvard' or 'Think Brown.'"

Within the Sisters of Mercy she was recalled for an ability to prepare excellent meals and for handling house and lawn maintenance issues.

She had been a basketball player in college and was a lifelong fan of Notre Dame football.

"She always viewed herself as an athlete," Sister Augusta said. "She insisted on keeping a third-floor bedroom so the necessity of traveling up and down stairs regularly would keep her fit. She was ready to help with the work it takes to keep a home going."

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30 at Mercy Villa, 6806 Bellona Ave., weather permitting. Any change to the funeral's date will be posted on the Mercy High School website.

Sister Marie is survived by her brother, John Foley of Watertown.

NOTE: An earlier version of this article indicated a different time for services — the time has been changed due to the impending weather, and the new service date and time is reflected here.

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