In December 2012, Mercy Sister and devoted member of the Lebanese-American community in North Carolina, Mary Michel Boulus, died at the age of 86. A woman full of zeal, Sister Mary Michel was the former President of Sacred Heart College in Belmont, N.C., and was awarded the Presidential Shield of the Republic of Lebanon from President Michel Sleiman. She was also involved locally in the Metrolina Phoenician Club.
Sister Mary Michel’s excitement for and commitment to the Lebanese in North Carolina Project will not be forgotten. She contributed to the documentary by telling audiences about her experiences growing up the daughter of a business owner with grace and humor. Her full oral history will soon be available on our website.
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Sacred Heart College president made ‘lasting investment’ in young people from Lebanon and the U.S.
BELMONT — Mercy Sister Mary Michel Boulus, former president of Sacred Heart College and advocate for the Lebanese-American community, died peacefully Dec. 9, 2012, at the Marian Center on the Sacred Heart Campus of the Sisters of Mercy in Belmont after a period of declining health. She was 86.
A vigil service and visitation were held Dec. 11, 2012, at the convent in Belmont.
The funeral Mass was celebrated Dec. 12, 2012, at Cardinal Gibbons Memorial Chapel, Sacred Heart Convent, followed by interment at Belmont Abbey Cemetery.
SISTER OF MERCY
Sister Michel was born Jumela Boulus on July 27, 1926, in China Grove, N.C. She was the daughter of Mike and Lammia Boulus, who came to the United States from Lebanon. In 1943, she graduated from ConcordHigh School and entered Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics.
She taught math at ConcordHigh School from 1947 to 1949 and in the summer earned certificates in guidance and constitutional law at ColumbiaUniversity in New York and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1959, she also earned a master’s degree in math from JohnCarrollUniversity in Cleveland, Ohio.
She entered the Sisters of Mercy on Aug. 2, 1949.
Decades later, Sister Michel described with a smile how she “was trapped from the beginning” after meeting Mercy Sister Mary Immaculata Dulohery in the spring of 1949, when she was fresh out of college and working as a teacher at Concord High School. In a 1989 eulogy for Sister Mary Immaculata, Sister Michel recalled that she had volunteered to drive one of the Mercy sisters back to the convent in Belmont after Sunday Mass:
“As Sophia of ‘The Golden Girls’ would say, ‘Picture this’: Belmont, Sacred Heart Convent, Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, street veils, long sleeves, church cloaks, statue-like Sisters of Mercy kneeling or sitting motionless. In walks innocent me, sitting on an end seat afraid to turn right or left, afraid to breathe too hard or break the dead silence in some way. I just knew that those kneeling on the back row were persons of some importance, and I knew I was the object of some scrutiny. After Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, the sisters fled out of the chapel. Sister Regis proceeded to introduce me to Sister Immaculata, who exchanged a few greetings with me, and Sister Regis vanished into thin air. After exchanging a few pleasantries, Sister Immaculata said to me, ‘Why don’t you come teach for the greatest principal on earth and you’ll never have to worry about money again?’ Then she sent me out the door where Sister Mary Stephen was waiting to finish the job. Be that as it may, in August of the same year, Sister Mary Immaculata placed on me the postulant cap. For my perseverance and for the appreciation I have for the vows I made at my profession, I have her to credit.”
MATH TEACHER TO COLLEGE PRESIDENT
Sister Michel served most recently as director of food services for Sacred Heart Convent and MercyAdministrationCenter, the headquarters of the Sisters of Mercy-South Central Community. She also served as Community treasurer for 15 years.
Although her ministry was in administration for many years, Sister Michel once said that she would most like to be remembered as a math teacher. She taught high school and college math at O’Donoghue High School (a forerunner of Charlotte Catholic High, located at present-day St.PatrickSchool), Charlotte Catholic and Asheville Catholic high schools, and at SacredHeartAcademy and College.
She was president of SacredHeartCollege in Belmont from 1975 until its closing in 1987.
During her tenure as president, Sister Michel campaigned to reverse declining enrollment at SacredHeartCollege, which had opened in 1892 as a Catholic girls’ school.
Under her leadership the college created several innovative programs to expand educational opportunities for people in need. In 1976 the college began offering a special education teaching certificate. In 1978 an English language institute was established for foreign students, many of whom later stayed to earn degrees. These English as a second language courses attracted students from all over the world. In 1979 the college started offering an adult degree program, and in 1982 it began offering 12 credit hours of classes free to GastonCounty’s unemployed. When SacredHeartCollege closed in 1987, the adult degree program was taken up by BelmontAbbeyCollege, where it continues today.
In recognition of her many contributions in the field of education, Sister Michel received several honorary degrees. Her alma mater in Greensboro bestowed on her an honorary doctor of laws degree recognizing her as the first alumna from their college to serve as president of a four-year liberal arts college in North Carolina. BelmontAbbeyCollege also honored her with an honorary doctor of humane letters degree for the many specialized programs she started at SacredHeartCollege.
She was a former member of the boards of a number of organizations, including Holy Angels Nursery, Sacred Heart College, Mercy Hospital in Charlotte, St Joseph’s Hospital in Asheville, General Council of the Sisters of Mercy, and Sisters of Mercy Services.
One of the students Sister Michel taught at O’Donoghue High School was Mercy Sister Mary-Andrew Ray, who remembers her as conscientious and generous – someone who always looked out for others’ needs before her own. From her efforts to raise funds for the Mercy sisters’ ministries, to her work starting ESL classes and offering free tuition to unemployed adults at SacredHeartCollege, Sister Michel “was always giving and persistent,” Sister Ray said. Sister Michel also had a great sense of humor, she added.
As a child of Lebanese parents who had emigrated to the United States, Sister Michel was also instrumental in providing scholarships to Lebanese students in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Lebanon was racked by civil war, so they could come to the U.S. and receive a college education. She wanted to help build a path to peace and stability in Lebanon, one young person at a time.
One of those scholarship recipients, Walid Maalouf, now a U.S. citizen, philanthropist and diplomat who has served with the U.S. government and at the United Nations, speaks often of Sister Michel’s influence on his life and the lives of other young Lebanese who came to North Carolina thanks to her.
“She has lighted a single candle in this land of liberty,” Maalouf said in 1985, during a special event in Belmont held to honor Sister Michel for her support of the Lebanese-American community in North Carolina. Archbishop Francis Zayek and Ambassador Abdallah Bouhabib and the Lebanese Community of the Carolinas had come to Belmont to thank her personally for her efforts in providing college educations for Lebanese students.
Maalouf remarked, “While others have abandoned Lebanon as a hopeless situation, Sister Michel has never lost faith in her people and has worked quietly and humbly to find solutions through understanding and proper education. Now … we can continue this cause as long as Lebanon needs us. And the light of this one candle is joined by the light of many, drawing from her flame, shattering the darkness of chaos and war with its brilliance. As the Apostle John wrote, ‘The light shines on in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it.'”
A cedar tree was planted in Sister Michel’s honor on the front lawn of SacredHeartCollege that day, and it still stands tall today.
Last year Sister Michel was also honored by the president of Lebanon, General Michel Sleiman, for her remarkable service to the Lebanese people and devotion to the Maronite religious heritage of her Lebanese-American parents.
In presenting her with the presidential honor on Nov. 9, 2011, the Lebanese ambassador to the U.S., Antoine Chedid, called Sister Michel an outstanding public servant whose “wisdom and outstanding dedication have left a high example for the generations to come of the Americans from Lebanese descent.”
Sister Michel is like so many from the “Land of the Cedars,” Chedid said, who are tenacious in their dedication to helping others.
“The Lebanese have always been adept entrepreneurs at home and abroad. They have journeyed throughout the world to build, develop and advance the forces of progress. They have always demonstrated an unshaken commitment to their independence and sovereignty and they have also shown their strong adherence to the principles of democracy,” he said.
“America’s promise of freedom attracted those early immigrants from Lebanon like the parents of Sister Mary Michel. But the Lebanese who came to this land, even though they did not have any money, were so rich in spirit. They decided to build their new towers in America and consequently they devoted themselves to helping their ancient motherland by achieving success in their adopted homeland.
“Sister Mary Michel Boulus, you are a leading example of those American Lebanese. It was you – your generation of American Lebanese – who provided Lebanon with a reservoir of good will. The Lebanese-American community was not only proud to receive the bounties that America bestows upon those who adopt her, but many of its members also contributed greatly in a society of fields of endeavor. In politics and government, they have made their mark. Many Americans from Lebanese descent can be named but none is more deserving of recognition than our distinguished honoree today,” he said.
Sister Michel’s life, he noted, “is the story of devotion, humility, rightfulness and of success.”
“Throughout her religious life, Sister Mary Michel has served God, the Church, the human being, the needy and served the American people with vision, love, integrity and silent enthusiasm. In all her activities, the public good has superseded everything else, and the most profound ambition for her has always been to serve to the best of her ability. She is a nun at heart and at Sacred Heart (Convent and College) she wanted to make a difference, and indeed she did. Since she entered the order of the Sisters of Mercy that Aug. 2, 1949, she served her God as a high school and college teacher before becoming the president of SacredHeartCollege. Sister Mary Michel never forgot her forefathers’ country, Lebanon. She established the Lebanese scholarship program and many deserving Lebanese students have been awarded full scholarships. You guided them through their education, you acted as their mentor, and here they are – they went on to become business and community leaders both in the United States and in Lebanon. You had a beautiful impact. Your achievement was a lasting investment in the future of Lebanon and her people.”
A social involvement very dear to her heart was the Metrolina Phoenician Club, which kept her in touch with her Lebanese heritage.
Sister Michel was noted for her ability to “make the impossible happen.” Two of the most notable examples were bringing the late Danny Thomas, a Maronite Catholic, to Belmont and Charlotte for fund raising and sponsoring the Ice Capades.
Sister Michel will long be remembered for her sense of hospitality and her gracious reception of everyone she met. It is said that she never met a stranger. Sister Michel had a lively sense of humor and a great ability to laugh at herself. Former students still remember her with fondness as someone who really cared.
Former student Walid Maalouf said Dec. 10, “We are deeply saddened with the passing of our beloved Sister Mary Michel Boulus. She was the light at the end of the tunnel for many people. She changed so many lives for the better.”
Maalouf said other former students had been contacting each other following the sad news of her passing to share stories and reminisce about Sister Michel. Her “famous three words in her speeches to us students were always ‘I challenge you!’ She challenged us all right, and you see her former students excelling in their professional lives around the world,” he said.
He added, “I believe those who pass on to eternal life during Christmas have a symbolic life of themselves being a gift to the world and this is what Sister Michel was: a gift from God to the world.”
Besides her parents, Sister Michel was preceded in death by brothers Paul Boulus and William Boulus and sister Sara Boulus Abowd. She is survived by the Sisters of Mercy, and her sister Elizabeth Boulus of Belmont, sister-in-law Deneen Boulus of Michigan, and many nieces and nephews.
Memorials may be made to Sisters of Mercy, 100 Mercy Drive, Belmont, N.C.28012.
Carothers Funeral Home of Gastonia was in charge of the arrangements.
— Patricia L. Guilfoyle, editor