Sister Mary Michelle Carroll, a member of the Sisters of Mercy and the founding principal of Mercy High School, died Thursday of complications from old age at Mercy Convent in Savannah, Ga. She was 96.
“Sister was such a giant in our Mercy community,” said sister Patricia Smith, also a member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy and a former faculty member who taught Latin, French and religion at the high school on E. Northern Parkway.
“She was a wonderful principal. I was an early faculty member and I remember her saying, “If you have the responsibility to do something, then you have the authority,’” said Sister Patricia, former chair and now a member of the Mercy High School board of trustees. “Sister was not bureaucratic and was loved by all.”
Mary Beth Lennon, a Mercy High School alumna who graduated in 1985, has been president of the school since 2014.
“Sister Mary Michelle was a gracious Southern lady whose demeanor was very soft. She was also a very soft-spoken person,” Ms. Lennon said. “She had excellent academic credentials and had been a brilliant student. We remember Sister Mary Michelle here very fondly. She is very present for us.”
Retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Carol E. Smith was in the first graduating class at Mercy High School in 1964, and called Sister Mary Michelle “the calmest and most quiet leader I’ve ever encountered.”
“She was very tall and impressive, but not imposing, and always spoke slowly and softly in a measured way with a slight Southern accent,” said Judge Smith.
Patricia Carroll was born and raised in Orlando, Fla., the daughter of Philip and Henrietta Carroll.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Florida State University, she worked as a research chemist during World War II, assisting in the development of Vitamin C supplements for U.S. soldiers.
In 1944, she entered the Sisters of Mercy in Baltimore, and as a young teacher taught at the old Mount St. Agnes High School in Mount Washington and later Mount St. Agnes College.
Sister Mary Michelle later moved to Savannah and served as principal at St. Vincent’s Academy, a Sisters of Mercy school for girls.
In 1958, she obtained a master’s degree in education from what is now Loyola University Maryland, with certifications in biology and chemistry.
Sister Mary Michelle was appointed by her order as the founding principal of Mercy High School.
“She was just a little shy of her 39th birthday and she was expecting a different assignment,” Ms. Lennon said. “They gave her two weeks’ notice. They sprung it on her.”
“The school opened on Sept. 26, 1960. The building was still under construction,” Judge Smith recalled. “We had 320 freshman and it was quite chaotic, but Sister Michelle was there in the mix helping us to sign up for classes and get our books.”
Sister Susanne Weetenkamp, RSM, was a student at Mercy for four years and graduated in 1966. She said Sister Mary Michelle was “one of those who helped birth our school. She was a brilliant high school administrator.
“As an educator and always as a principal, she was not feared, but deeply respected,” she said. “She was quiet — not bombastic — but commanded respect.”
“I remember her fondly as a calming influence during some very tumultuous times, 1961 to 1965,” said Nancy Assero, a member of the school’s class of 1965 and board chair of St. Francis of Assisi School near Herring Run Park.
“She would speak and somehow you would know that things were going to be OK. She took care of us,” Ms. Assero said of Sister Mary Michelle. “I also remember how shocked I was to learn that she had another life before becoming a religious sister. We were so naive and she was just Sister Mary Michelle.”
She presided over a rapid growth of the school; by 1963 Mercy boasted 1,000 students.
“Sister Mary Michelle guided the faculty — almost all Sisters of Mercy in those early days — and led the development of an innovative curriculum,” Ms. Lennon wrote in a biographical profile of Sister Mary Michelle. “Her focus on academic excellence and rigor are hallmarks of a Mercy education today.”
In 1966, she left Mercy and became assistant provincial of the Baltimore Province of the Sisters of Mercy.
Sister Mary Michelle returned to Mercy in 1971 and remained as a guidance counselor for two years, then took on the assignment as provincial for her order’s Baltimore province.
She then was named vice president for sponsorship at what became St. Joseph’s Health System in Atlanta.
“She spent 29 years there and birthed the Eastern Mercy Health System and also birthed a palliative care movement in Atlanta and also a palliative care unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital,” Sister Weetenkamp said. “She would be the first one to make light of her many achievements because she was not a braggart. She was simply a lovely woman.”
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Even though she had been away for years from one of the most prominent schools in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, her heart was never far away from Mercy, and she continued to be interested in the school.
Said Ms. Lennon: “Sister Mary Michelle continues to shape Mercy’s future.”
Judge Smith recalled that Sister Mary Michelle was once asked to return to the school to speak at a celebration. “Here were all of these middle-aged Mercy graduates cheering and clapping for her, because she was so valued and appreciated by her students. It was all very moving.”
Since 2006, Sister Mary Michelle was a resident of Mercy Convent. She enjoyed doing jigsaw puzzles
A Mass of Christian burial will be offered for Sister Mary Michelle at 11 a.m. Wednesday at St. Francis Carbrini Catholic Church in Savannah.
She is survived by a brother, Philip Carroll, of Amelia Island, Fla.; and several nieces and nephews.