Sister Sara Ann Abell, a Sister of Charity of Nazareth for 84 years, who served for more than two decades in Southern Maryland, died Jan. 24 in Louisville, Ky. She was 102 years old.
A native of Leonardtown, Sister Sara Ann taught in schools in Kentucky, Arkansas, Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, Tennessee and Maryland. She spent her religious life serving as a teacher, librarian and principal in both elementary and secondary education, as well as working in family and social services and volunteer ministry for 65 years.
In 1980, Sister Sara Ann, who was in her late 60s at the time, founded the Literacy Council of St. Mary’s County, which through her efforts, helped countless adults, young people, persons with disabilities and others learn to read. The organization continues to this day, serving about 120 people a year.
“The Literacy Council is a living memorial to Sister,” said Susan Brookbank, the group’s current director. “She is a guiding vision that keeps us going. We feel the loss every day, but the gift she gave was so great ... She was a joy as a human being.
The organization, which trained volunteer tutors and matched them with those who desired to learn to read, grew out of Sister Sara Ann’s desire to get her students at the now-closed St. Mary’s Academy in Leonardtown involved in helping others.
“There are many out there who are ignorant of the fact that many people do not know how to read, either because they dropped out of school to have a baby, or because they had to go to work or because of something else,” Sister Sara Ann told the Catholic Standard in 1995.
Throughout the years, the Literacy Council expanded its efforts to help those in need. Sister Sara Ann and the group’s tutors would go into group homes, homes for those with mental disabilities, the county detention center and drug treatment centers, where they taught people to read, to do basic math, helped prepare for the GED (high school equivalency exam) and assisted with other life skills.
“I used to be surprised at how many people could not read, but I’m not surprised anymore. There are many people who somehow get forgotten,” she said. “These people don’t want other people to know they can’t read. They are nice people. They are wonderful people. They are God’s children. We have to help them.”
In the Catholic Standard profile of Sister Sara Ann, she also recalled one student in particular – a farm worker from Georgia who never went to school and wanted a better life for his son. “It took two and a half years, but he learned to read. He also came back into the Church. I will never forget him because he was so grateful,” she said.
Sister Sara Ann attended St. Mary’s Academy, which was staffed by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. After graduating in 1930, she entered the Sisters of Charity at age 18.
She earned an undergraduate degree in social sciences from Spalding College, Louisville, Ky., and later earned two master’s degrees, one in history from The Catholic University of America and another in religious education from Spalding.
As an educator, she also taught at the college level and studied journalism at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. She sponsored high school newspapers and yearbooks at six of the schools in which she taught. In 1972, Sister Sara Ann returned to Southern Maryland to care for her elderly mother and she began teaching at St. Mary’s Academy.
Sister Sara Ann was a member of the Catholic Historical Society and several religious and charitable organizations. She was also a certified catechist.
Sister Sara Ann returned to Louisville in 1998, where she lived until her death.
She was predeceased by her two sisters, Sister Alberta Abell and Sister Pauline Maria Abell. She is survived by one sister, Loretta Taylor of St. Mary’s City and her religious community.