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Tender Mercies: Mary Catherine Bunting – Former Nun, Nurse and Philanthropist – Gives Her Time and Money From the Heart

December 26, 2007

By Abigail Tucker, The Baltimore Sun

Dec. 26–From the cover

Last in a series of occasional features highlighting people in the Baltimore area who exemplify the “Spirit of Sharing,” The Sun’s annual holiday campaign.

For Mary Catherine Bunting, giving is a diverse enterprise. The former nun sometimes drops by a local homeless shelter with fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, offerings from her own garden. She helps an elderly neighbor with her oxygen tanks. And she volunteers once a week with the Hospice of Baltimore, sitting at the bedsides of the dying.

This fall, Bunting also presented Mercy Medical Center with the largest philanthropic gift in its history, an undisclosed amount that will help build the hospital’s new 18-story facility, to be named after her. Previously, the largest gift was $10 million.

“Being Catholic, I thought, what are you supposed to do with your blessings?” the rosy-cheeked 70-year-old said. “Share them.”

Bunting shuns the word “heiress.” Yes, she is the granddaughter of Dr. George Avery Bunting, who founded the Noxzema Chemical Co.; his children and grandchildren inherited his whopping fortune and have given generously to area charities for decades. But Bunting, who spent many years as a Sister of Mercy and as a nurse to Baltimore’s poor, has long supplemented monetary gifts with her physical presence.

She still volunteers several times a month at the hospice and at My Sister’s Place Lodge, a transitional housing center for homeless women with mental illnesses. She takes residents for weekly outings to area museums or the movies.

“She’s your neighbor, the lady next door,” said Lina Day, who works at the lodge. “She doesn’t come in wearing a Cartier diamond ring as big as my stapler. She’s every woman.”

Becoming a nurse and a nun was not the obvious path for Bunting. But at 16, while a passenger in her boyfriend’s car, she was in a serious accident.

“My head hit the dashboard,” she remembered. She broke bones in her face and spent 10 days in the hospital, her jaw wired together.

During that time, “I saw what nurses did,” she said. The tenderness of the care she received inspired her to earn her nursing diploma in 1958 at the Mercy Hospital School of Nursing.

She went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Mount St. Agnes College and advanced degrees in nursing from the University of Maryland. Over the years, she worked in Mercy’s labor and delivery department and taught at the nursing school. From 1972 to 1996, she practiced at Mercy Southern Health Center, an outreach center in South Baltimore, eventually becoming a nurse practitioner.

While pursuing her career, she also followed her faith. In 1959, after earning her first nursing degree, Bunting joined the Sisters of Mercy. She was raised in a very Catholic household, and “I really felt that was what God was calling me to do.”

While a member of the order, she no longer had access to her inheritance. But even before she took her vow of poverty, she says, money was not a major interest of hers. A shy child, she grew up only vaguely understanding where her parents’ wealth came from; she knew about her grandfather’s role but didn’t dwell on it.

For the most part, neither did people she associated with. In nursing school, she remembers only one unpleasant confrontation with a new roommate who thought Bunting’s outfit was too fancy.

“She called me a rich snob, and we had it out the first day,” Bunting remembered. After the initial fireworks, though, the women made up and became close friends.

Especially after she became a nurse practitioner in 1982, Bunting functioned much like a doctor, treating multiple generations of Baltimoreans at the old Mercy Southern Health Center, which was for a time based in a renovated funeral home — a far cry from the planned Mary Catherine Bunting Center at Mercy, with its two-story atrium lobby and rooftop meditation gardens. She kept a low profile back then. Occasionally, she came across patients who worked for her family in some capacity, but for the most part she knew much more about them than they did about her.

“You knew if someone had an alcoholic in the family. You knew where the AA meetings were, and who didn’t have food,” she said. “They trusted you, and you cared about them.”

Bunting was remembered long after she left the outreach center for her willingness to work far more than her scheduled hours, to make home visits and to reach out to people in distress. Based in what is now Federal Hill, Mercy Southern was part of what was then a much less opulent community, where many people lacked the resources to properly monitor their health. Bunting was well- known for taking time to teach her patients.

“I still meet families who say, ‘I haven’t had anyone to do my health care since Mary Catherine Bunting,” said Joanne Manzo, a pediatric nurse practitioner and former Sister of Mercy who worked with Bunting for many years in South Baltimore.

“It was her belief in the spiritual aspects of life, that faith-filled way about her,” said Catherine Kelly, another Mercy nurse practitioner who worked with Bunting and was one of her patients. “She was just utterly unimpressed with herself.”

After leaving the order in 1974 — she says she no longer felt called by God to remain — Bunting continued to nurse and volunteer, but regained access to her worldly possessions, which she proceeded to dispose of at a considerable rate.

Especially after traveling the world and seeing desperate poverty in places such as Nicaragua, she’s realized “you just can’t give enough. I can give so much, but I can’t change the system so everyone has health care. I’m not Mother Theresa.” The scope of global poverty can be dispiriting even to cheerful ex-nuns.

But Bunting’s doing what she can. “I don’t have any children, and I don’t need to pass a lot on.” While she will save “something” for her nieces and nephews and their children, she plans to give away much of her wealth.

She spreads her gifts over a variety of causes, educational (the College of Notre Dame and the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, for instance), environmental (the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Conservation Fund) and cultural (Center Stage and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra).

Human welfare organizations remain a priority. She gives to Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, Habitat for Humanity, Healthcare for the Homeless, Partners in Excellence and others.

And, naturally, to Mercy. Bunting had been among the hospital’s benefactors for years, but when the time came to raise funds for the new building, Sister Helen Amos, executive chairwoman of the board of trustees of Mercy Health Services, sat down with her for a talk. The two had first met as young nuns; back then, Amos said, she could hardly have imagined having such a conversation. Yet she wasn’t surprised when Bunting offered her historic gift.

“She was a person who could always be counted on to do her part and more, a person whose generosity comes from her heart,” Amos said. Amos said she knew it was difficult for Bunting, a very private woman, to become a figurehead for the capital campaign.

“But she would do it for a cause close to her heart,” she said.

For her part, Bunting, who lives in the area, still doesn’t fraternize with the super-rich very much. Mostly she hangs out with her friends from her parish, St. Vincent de Paul in Baltimore. She loves to garden.

“My next-door neighbor laughs and says, ‘You may have left, but you’re still a nun,’” Bunting recalled.

Bunting says the best presents she herself has been given are “my life, by my mother, and my faith.” The latter remains a guiding force as she continues to share with others.

The women she meets at My Sister’s Place Lodge “always say to me other people give us money, but you give us time,” Bunting said.

She doesn’t see how she could do otherwise.

The Bible “doesn’t say, ‘Blessed are the people who give to the poor,’” she said. “It says, ‘Blessed are the poor.’”

abigail.tucker@baltsun.com

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