Mary Baker, 73; with wit, she made theology vital

Mary Baker taught at Fontbonne for 25 years.
Mary Baker taught at Fontbonne for 25 years.

During the theology classes she taught at Fontbonne Academy in Milton, Mary Baker was known for making occasional phone calls to God, a gesture that always grabbed the attention of students. Taking out her cellphone, she would dial and talk away.

“It was very silly and very funny,” said Julie Sullivan, a former student. “Everyone looked forward to that.”

Chris Welch, a former colleague, said Ms. Baker also kept a stuffed parrot in the classroom for use while teaching the Gospel of Luke. The parrot became so popular she let students take it home for weekends or family trips.


She was “one of those people born to be a teacher,” Sullivan said.

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Ms. Baker, who formerly was part of the Sisters of Charity of Montreal religious community, died of leukemia Sept. 16 in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She was 73 and lived in Quincy.

“Mary was a treasured colleague, mentor, and teacher whose knowledge and expertise in the classroom was only exceeded by her renowned storytelling and wit,” head of school Mary Ellen Barnes said in a letter to the Fontbonne community after Ms. Baker died. “She demonstrated a profound compassion toward all her students and affirmed each young woman’s identity, empowering her to claim her voice, first in the classroom and then beyond it.”

Kerry Killgoar, who had Ms. Baker as a homeroom teacher at Fontbonne in the early 1990s and later became a colleague, said she “made theology accessible.”

In her 25 years teaching at Fontbonne Academy, Ms. Baker helped shape the theology program.


“She was really connected to the students,” said Ms. Baker’s longtime friend Mary McLaughlin. “She really wanted them to love theology, and they came to.”

Ms. Baker made such an impression on students that when word spread she was ill, Sullivan began writing a script for a documentary on her.

Sullivan was in a script writing class at Ithaca College in New York and thought Ms. Baker would be a perfect subject. Ms. Baker, who had been ill since February, had a chance to read Sullivan’s script and loved it.

She made every student feel special, said Sullivan, who added that Ms. Baker was known as a strict teacher, but one who had a great sense of humor.

Every Halloween Ms. Baker dressed up in a costume, Welch recalled, and one year she impressed students and teachers by dressing as Flavor Flav, a hip-hop musician known for wearing a large clock around his neck.


“She was crazy in the best possible definition of the word,” said Killgoar, who told a story about an evening when she and Ms. Baker went to Dorchester to get ice cream. A car drove by blaring rap music, prompting Ms. Baker to start dancing on the sidewalk, drawing cheers from onlookers.

Mary Jean Baker was born in East Cambridge, a daughter of Paul Baker and the former Edna Duffy.

Her love of theology began when she was growing up. She went to Girls Catholic High School in Malden and joined the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, also known as the Grey Nuns.

She was part of the order for 14 years and remained loyal to her religious community even after she left to pursue teaching, McLaughlin said.

Ms. Baker received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Newton College of the Sacred Heart and a master’s in theology from Marquette University in Milwaukee.

She was a religious education coordinator in Lexington and Methuen, and then spent 10 years as a religious education coordinator and teacher at St. Clement School in Medford, where she met McLaughlin.

They often traveled together, exploring much of Europe, including Paris, Ms. Baker’s favorite place to visit. To cut costs, they shared a home in Quincy.

Ms. Baker began teaching at Fontbonne in the late 1980s and teachers often got together for game nights.

“I jumped at any opportunity to be in their home,” Killgoar said.

One year, Ms. Baker hosted a Bastille Day party and made everyone dress up and sing the French national anthem, Welch said.

Ms. Baker had a Facebook page to keep close to her students, and she posted regularly after becoming ill.

“She respected her students, and I was amazed to see so many of them at her wake,” said McLaughlin. People who had her in classes from the 1980s up until her last class in 2011 told stories about how Ms. Baker encouraged them to live to their full potential.

Ms. Baker went to every sports contest and performance she could.

Sullivan, who participated in theater, said Ms. Baker encouraged her to try out for lead roles and “from that moment on she was my biggest fan.”

Welch and Killgoar said Ms. Baker was their greatest mentor, and Welch said she pushed him to pursue a doctorate.

“She grew in wisdom and dignity, but was still young at heart,” Welch said. “She was the youngest 73-year-old I knew.”

Ms. Baker leaves a sister, Patricia Ann Dow of Somerville, and a brother, James of Newburyport.

After retiring in 2011, Ms. Baker took classes at the University of Massachusetts Boston, among them a Boston Harbor Islands course, an opera class, and a course on the history of immigration in Boston.

As was the case in her teaching years, Ms. Baker was known for her humor and one-liners while ill. During a hospital stay in June, McLaughlin said, Ms. Baker collapsed on the floor and lost consciousness briefly, before getting up and joking she “wasn’t doing stand-up comedy.”

She never lost her upbeat attitude, McLaughlin said, and would remind each visitor to “live each day to the fullest” and that “tomorrow is always going to be better.”

Melissa Hanson can be reached at