Sr. Choiniere, a joyful and tireless champion of special education, dies at 91

Sr. Mary Choiniere, CSJ, served for more than 26 years as the Archdiocese of Detroit's director of special education, as well as 20 years as pastoral associate at St. Alan Parish in Troy (later Christ Our Light). In those roles, she was a steadfast advocate for those with disabilities, lobbying Church and civic leaders for resources to care for those with different abilities. (Detroit Catholic file photo)

TROY — Those who knew Sr. Mary Choiniere, CSJ, knew at least two things about her.

First, she had a joyful, energetic heart for serving others, particularly those with special needs. Second, if Sr. Choiniere wanted your help, she was getting your help.

“Oh, she was a dynamo,” laughed Pam La Grassa, coordinator of special needs ministries at Christ, Our Light Parish in Troy, where Sr. Choiniere served as pastoral associate for nearly 20 years. “She did not take no for an answer, and I mean that in a good way.”

Sr. Choiniere, who over the decades lobbied to establish and grow ministries to aid the sick, poor and disabled throughout the Archdiocese of Detroit, died Sept. 5 at the age of 91.

For more than 26 years, she served as director of the Archdiocese of Detroit's special needs programs, a role in which she touched countless lives across southeast Michigan.

Born Nov. 30, 1930, to Joseph and Florence (Chartier) Choiniere in Detroit, Sr. Choiniere entered the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Nazareth on Jan. 2, 1949, receiving the name Sr. Genevieve Marie. She later returned to the use of her baptismal name. She pronounced first vows on July 2, 1951, and final vows July 2, 1954.

After graduating from Nazareth College with a degree in biology and chemistry, Sr. Choiniere taught at St. Benedict in Highland Park, St. Veronica in Eastpointe, St. Francis Home for Boys in Detroit, St. Joseph in St. Johns, and Barbour Hall Military Academy in Kalamazoo, before completing her master’s degree in administration from Central Michigan University in 1968.

For the next 26 years, she supervised the Archdiocese of Detroit’s special education program, followed by 20 years as pastoral minister at St. Alan Parish (later Christ, Our Light) in Troy, retiring in 2013.

A feisty, cheerful, polka-loving nun, Sr. Choiniere was a whirlwind of influence wherever she went. Among her accomplishments was the establishment of the archdiocese version of the Special Olympics — a long-running event called “The Happening” on the campus of Bishop Foley High School in Madison Heights — as well as catechesis and formation programs for children and adults with different education needs.

As the archdiocese’s special needs coordinator, Sr. Choiniere successfully lobbied archbishops and lawmakers to increase support for “the most powerless people in the diocese,” as she called them, from hearing aids to busing and food programs.

Sr. Mary Choiniere, CSJ, is pictured with Fr. Don Demmer, pastor of Christ Our Light Parish in Troy, in this file photo. At Christ Our Light, Sr. Choiniere organized catechism programs to include children with special needs in sacramental preparation, recruiting volunteers who were always eager to help. (Courtesy of Pam La Grassa)
Sr. Mary Choiniere, CSJ, is pictured with Fr. Don Demmer, pastor of Christ Our Light Parish in Troy, in this file photo. At Christ Our Light, Sr. Choiniere organized catechism programs to include children with special needs in sacramental preparation, recruiting volunteers who were always eager to help. (Courtesy of Pam La Grassa)

“She just had this heart for anyone who was in need,” La Grassa said. “She was funny and feisty, and she just had this way of making you want to do whatever she asked you to volunteer for. And you ended up loving it and wanting to do it forever.”

Her persuasive ways didn’t stop with laity or priests.

She counted among her closest friends the late Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka, whom she often took credit for “converting” to the cause of those with special needs, La Grassa said.

It was Sr. Choiniere who persuaded the cardinal to support her vision of a special needs Olympics in the Archdiocese of Detroit, a significant undertaking involving hundreds of volunteers, a Mariachi band, parade, food and games to support and encourage those with different abilities to gain the confidence to be their best selves.

“She loved Cardinal Szoka, the way they would laugh and work together,” La Grassa said. “When Cardinal Szoka visited the special Olympics, it was a big deal. He was a little nervous, but she had him right up there with the students. One student came up to him and gave him a baseball cap to wear, and he took off his miter and put that on, and they laughed. That was almost his way of saying to her, ‘You got me.’”

Cardinal Szoka eventually became one the Church's greatest supporters of special education, so much so that Sr. Choiniere lovingly dubbed him the "patron saint of the handicapped."

An annual event at the Hazel Park Raceway to raise money for the special Olympics became an event unto itself, La Grassa recalled — a symbol of Sr. Choiniere's ability to bring people together for a cause.

“It brought people together, and it built community,” La Grassa said. “People would look forward to serving at the special Olympics, working at a booth, or just making friends and getting involved. That was her gift.”

Sr. Choiniere’s heart for those in need extended to those who were suffering in any way, La Grassa said, particularly those in mourning. Often, she would visit funeral homes and visit with those holding wakes, even those she didn't know.

“She loved going to wakes and funerals and praying with people,” La Grassa said. “She just knew what to say. She brought out the grief or the joy or the pain. She just had this gift of relating to exactly what people needed.”

As pastoral associate at Christ Our Light, Sr. Choiniere would frequently bring Communion to the homebound, making sure to look people in the eye and let them know how much they were loved, La Grassa said.

But her first love was serving those with disabilities, working tirelessly to ensure those with different abilities could receive the sacraments and participate in parish life, crafting catechesis programs tailored toward those with sensory needs and recruiting volunteers to work with differently abled children.

For a diminutive nun with an outsized personality, Sr. Choiniere's requests didn't take much convincing.

“When I arrived at Christ Our Light, she asked me to coordinate the special needs program, and I said to her, ‘Sister, I could never do what you do. You’re a legend, and I don’t have your gifts,’” La Grassa said.

But in the end, La Grassa recalled, “I couldn’t say no to Sister."

A funeral Mass was celebrated for Sr. Choiniere on Tuesday, Sept. 13, at the Nazareth Center in Kalamazoo.


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