Mary Sullins of Ellicott City, Maryland, remembers Sister Zora Heckart as “a second mother” and “tremendously kind” Lutheran deaconess who ran Baltimore’s Lutheran Hospice for students and young working women from 1918 to 1958.
In those days, the term hospice did not refer to services for people with a terminal illness, but to a stately, faith-based residence at 509 Park Ave. in the city, next door to the Lutheran Inner Mission Society of Baltimore, which operated the residence. Diakon continues the heritage of service begun by the Lutheran Inner Mission Society, among a number of other organizations.
Approximately 800 “girls” lived in the home over the 40 years that Sister Zora served as housemother, usually with a long list waiting to get in—a fact that speaks volumes about the love and respect Heckart generated among her charges, Sullins says.
“She was so easy to talk to and always gave good advice,” Sullins notes. “I can’t say enough good things about her.”
In fact, Sullins honors her friend and mentor with a twice-yearly donation to Diakon in Heckart's name, on the sister’s birthday in September and again at Christmas.
“It's been a long time since I lived at the hospice, but I think Zora should be remembered,” she explains.
Sullins moved to the hospice in 1943 after graduating from high school in Taneytown, Md. at the age of 15. She wanted to attend Strayer's Business School, so her minister recommended she live at the hospice under Sister Zora's care.
“My mother and I went and looked it over, and she was very impressed with Zora,” she relates. “It was a lovely brick house in a very nice part of town—a home away from home. There were also homes for Methodist and Episcopal girls nearby, and the YMCA and YWCA were just up the street, so it was very safe. And the business school was within walking distance.”
Room and board at the hospice, including breakfast and dinner, was only $7 per week, Sullins says, adding that most of the 30 girls who lived there at any one time slept three or four to a bedroom.
“The rooms were large and well-equipped,” she says. “We also had an upstairs living room with a radio where we could talk and play games or use the sewing machines. It was very pleasant and family-like.”
Sister Zora “had a lot of warmth and was very caring ... she took good care of us.”
After graduating from business school, Sullins took a secretarial job at the Turner White Casket Company and remained at the hospice until Sister Zora left in 1958 to become housemother at the deaconess school on Charles Street.
“I stayed there longer than most of the girls did,” she says. “I asked Zora several times if she was sure she didn't want me to leave, and she always said, ‘Yes, I'm sure, because I like to sit and talk with you.’ She was such a sweet lady.”
Not that the sister couldn't be strict, Sullins points out: “She expected everyone to follow the rules. We had to go to church on Sunday, and if anyone went out at night too often, she took them aside and tried to discourage that behavior. Also, if a young man came to see one of the girls, they had to stay in the downstairs living room to talk.”
Another former resident, Geraldine Mullinix of Cumberland, Md., says Heckart “had a lot of warmth and was very caring toward her little flock of women. She loved her job and took good care of us.”
“I remember one time there was a big snowstorm and we couldn't go anywhere, so Sister Zora had us all in the kitchen making cookies,” Mullinix recalls. “It was so much fun. And as some of the young ladies moved out and got married, Zora tried to make it to all of their weddings.”
Like her friend and former housemate Sullins, Mullinix also remembers how strict Sister Zora could be: “You had to be in by 11 o'clock on weeknights and by midnight on weekends or you got locked out,” she says, chuckling at the recollection. “And yes, that happened to me once in a while. Also, if you weren’t home in time for dinner, too bad. But she was an outstanding housemother for all of those reasons.”
Heckart retired in 1961 and lived at the Deaconess Center in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, until her death at the age of 92 in 1979.
Today, Diakon occasionally honors people for having a significant impact on social ministry. The name of that award is the Sister Zora Heckart Award.