Sister Mary Sharon Burns, a member of the Sisters of Mercy and an educator who chaired the theology department at what is now Loyola University Maryland and sang in the college’s theatrical productions, died Thursday from complications of a stroke at Stella Maris Hospice. She was 91.
“She was so kind and immediately found a way to help someone in trouble. She was a great teacher,” said Sister Mary Harper, also a Sister of Mercy and a poet who taught English at Mercy High School.
“Sister Sharon was a Mercy star,” said Sister Augusta Riley, another member of the Sisters of Mercy who was also an educator and served as executive director of Marian House, a Northeast Baltimore facility for homeless women.
She said Sister Sharon “was a great joke-teller and could remember more jokes than I’ve heard in my life — and could tell them at the drop of a hat.”
Petronella Rose Burns was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., the daughter of Howley Joseph Burns, a federal armored car employee, and Carolyn Kuhns Burns, a homemaker. She moved with her family in 1938 to Prince George’s County.
After graduating in 1944 from Maryland Park High School in Seat Pleasant, she worked as a secretary for the Veterans Administration.
She felt the calling for a religious life, and after interviewing and researching more than 100 orders, she visited several and in 1946 entered the Sisters of Mercy. She explained years later that she chose the Mount Washington order “because they were the only ones who fed me.”
She was given the religious name of Mary Sharon, and at the profession of her vows she chose “Christ is all” as her motto.
She received a bachelor’s degree in education in 1957 from the old Mount St. Agnes College, and a master’s degree in 1967 in theology from Notre Dame University.
From 1952 to 1954, she taught at Our Lady of Sorrows parochial school near Birmingham, Ala., and from 1954 to 1961 she was on the faculty of St. Anthony parochial school in Ensley, Ala. She then took a teaching post at the old Little Flower School in Woodstock.
In 1964, Sister Sharon began religious studies at Catholic University of America, and four years later obtained a doctorate in religion.
She was named an associate professor of theology at Mount St. Agnes in 1969. After the college merged with what is now Loyola University Maryland in 1971, she continued teaching and was appointed chair of the theology department in 1980, the first non-Jesuit to hold that position.
After leaving Loyola in 1983, she began a 25-year second career in pastoral care at Stella Maris Hospice in Timonium. She cared for the terminally ill and served as chaplain.
“The dying are often afraid to go to sleep at night,” she told The Evening Sun in a 1987 interview. “When it’s dark many people get afraid of death. They don’t like to close their eyes. They’re afraid they may not open them again.”
Sister Sharon visited the terminally ill in their homes, and said, “I really don’t know what I’ll find…. You hope you don’t do the wrong thing, say the wrong thing. We’re constantly working in crisis situations.
“Whatever their last days are,” she said, “we try to make them as good as they can be for them. That’s why I pray so hard. You don’t know what the person’s needs are. And you have so little time.”
After retiring from Stella Maris, she volunteered at Mercy Medical Center and at The Villa, her order’s retirement home in the Woodbrook neighborhood of Baltimore County.
Described as “vibrant” and “charismatic,” Sister Sharon had a flair for theatrics. She enjoyed singing and performed in several musicals during her days at Loyola.
“She has bright blue eyes that she accentuates in a hint of show-girl style with eye shadow; and she wears a touch of pink lipstick,” observed The Baltimore Sun in 1976 when she was appearing in “Star-Spangled.”
“She wears a long black slinky gown, and her solo is ‘The Man I Love,’” The Sun reported. “She thinks that being joyful — singing and dancing and having a good time — is a good deal of what life ought to be about. Not everybody’s image of a Roman Catholic nun, but it fits Sister M. Sharon Burns.”
When Sister Sharon was 18, she sang with a swing band on Saturday nights. Then she decided to become a nun.
“I can’t explain how you make a decision like that. I was working for the government and was having fun with my singing career. But I felt I wanted to serve God through the people,” she said in the Sun article. “I thought my singing was over, that I’d do nothing but scrub floors and that I’d never eat a hot fudge sundae again.”
Seamus Dockery, who was in the fine arts department at Loyola and a member of the theater faculty, cast Sister Sharon in the 1985 production of “Hello Dolly” that he was directing. The show opened the school’s McManus Theater.
“When she entered coming down a stairway performing ‘Hello Dolly,’ the crowd cheered,” Mr. Dockery, who retired from Loyola in 2000, recalled.
“She was stunning to look at and with her red hair, she made a fabulous Dolly,” he said, “When the show was over and we were going to a post-production party, everyone wanted to have a couple of drinks, but all Sharon wanted was a root beer ice cream float, which was so typical of her. She was a vivacious, outgoing and lovable person.”
Sister Irene Callahan, also a Sister of Mercy, wrote in a biographical profile of Sister Sharon that she “held onto her voice and verve in the final months of her life, singing her signature song ‘Hello Dolly’ for her sisters and staff at The Villa — a ‘star’ until the closing curtain of a life well-lived.”
A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10:30 a.m. Thursday in the chapel at Stella Maris Hospice, 2300 Dulaney Valley Road, Timonium.
She is survived by two sisters, Sister Yolanda Burns, a Sister of Charity, of Baltimore, and Geraldine Petrone of Middleborough, Mass.