By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
Sister Mary McNellis, 102, the oldest member of the Loretto Community, died July 23. A familiar name in Kansas City, she was a long-time educator and worker for peace and justice. She had celebrated her 84th year as a Sister of Loretto in December.
“Mary was a beautiful spirit,” said Loretto Sister Barbara Doak, her housemate and caregiver for more than 35 years, who was at her side when she died. “She was straight forward and frank, but her love went deep. She had patience and an acceptance of human foibles, and she loved everybody equally. She was a real spiritual inspiration.”
Mary McNellis was born in Kansas City, on March 6, 1910, a daughter of Irish immigrants Anthony and Hanna McFadden McNellis. Sister Barbara recalled Sister Mary often saying that at her birth, her mother dedicated her to the Blessed Virgin by naming her Mary. She attended Sacred Heart Grade School, where she first became acquainted with the Sisters of Loretto. She briefly attended Redemptorist High School, transferred to Loretto Academy, and graduated in 1927. After working one year as a stenographer, Mary entered the Sisters of Loretto community at Nerinx, Ky., in June 1928. She was received into the congregation on Dec. 9, 1928, and professed her first vows a year later. She professed her final vows Aug. 15, 1933, and was known as Sister (Mary) Cornelia until the 1960s.
Sister Mary attended Webster College (now University) and earned a bachelor’s degree in History, with minors in education and French, in 1944. She received a master’s degree in education, with a minor in American history, from Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., in 1950.
She served in the Archdiocese of St. Louis as a teacher, principal and parish convent superior from 1930 to 1948. A longshoreman’s strike in 1948 kept her from sailing to China, so she went wherever she was needed — teaching in Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Texas for more than 20 years. Sister Barbara said Sister Mary had an innate Irish spirituality, sensing God’s calls to her through the actions and needs of others.
She also served as superior of Our Lady of Sorrows Parish convent in West Las Vegas, N.M., from 1949 -1952.
In 1972, Sister Mary found herself back home in Kansas City, and soon she held numerous responsibilities at Loretto in Kansas City, including Latin teacher, assistant school librarian, tutor, volunteer coordinator and researcher. She also served as alumnae relations coordinator.
She worked as a school secretary at Longfellow School for a year before “retiring” from teaching in 1980. Following her retirement, Sister Mary served as a Montessori school aide and assistant in Roeland Park, Kan., and at Seton Center, and as activities director for Catholic Charities’ Social Ministries Dept. from 1982-84.
She also taught religious education classes at Our Lady of Sorrows Church for several years. She “officially retired” in 1991, but until recently, Sister Mary spent many hours volunteering, especially for organizations committed to peace and justice.
In 1999, Sister Mary and four other Loretto Sisters, accompanied by a group of lay people, attended The Hague Appeal for Peace Conference in the Netherlands. The following year, she was named Kansas City’s Citizen of the Year by then-Mayor Kay Barnes at a United Nation’s Day event.
Often accompanied by Sister Barbara, Sister Mary was a regular participant at weekend peace demonstrations at the J.C. Nichols Fountain on the Country Club Plaza, sometimes in a wheelchair.
In 2004, PeaceWorks, Kansas City awarded her the Charles Bebb Peace Merit Award. For a number of years, Sister Mary participated in the planning of the annual Troost Avenue Festival. She and Sister Barbara had lived in the neighborhood since the 1970s.
Sister Barbara said Sister Mary was a “pretty traditional Catholic, and she was OK with that. Her outlook enabled her to open her arms to the world. She believed all people to be children of God and deserving of love and respect from other children of God. The Gospel is hard to live, but Mary took it seriously, and as a result, she was loved by many, of many backgrounds and faiths.”
The Funeral Mass was celebrated July 28 at St. James Church in Kansas City. Burial followed at Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery. Sister Mary is survived by 25 nieces and nephews, and their families, friend and caregiver Sister Barbara Doak and her Loretto Community family.
Donations in memory of Sister Mary McNellis may be sent to the Loretto Community, in care of the Loretto Development Office, 4000 S. Wadsworth Blvd., Littleton, CO 80123-1308, or by visiting www.lorettocommunity.org, click on “Give to Loretto.”