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Sister Maria in 'Heaven's Hall of Fame'

Sister Maria Pares was laid to rest Saturday.

At her funeral mass attended by several hundred at St. Michael R.C. Church in downtown Buffalo, Rev. Ronald W. Sams closed his homily by saying that Sister Maria was now in "Heaven's Hall of Fame."

Sister Christina Pecoraro, in reading the Prayers of the Faithful, shared that when Sister Maria celebrated 50 years of devotion to the church a few years ago, also at St. Michael's, Sister Maria cited a line from poet Emily Dickinson.

"Just four words," Pecoraro recalled. " 'I dwell in possibility.' "

Pecoraro said that Sister Maria had repeated that line in recent weeks.

Pecoraro also told of how Sister Maria, in her final coaching role as an assistant at Villa Maria's women's basketball program, would travel past – and often stop at – a cemetery where nuns had been laid to rest. Pecoraro said Sister Maria knew she stood on the shoulders of those who came before her, and how now many of the young women who played basketball for Sister Maria would now be standing on hers.

When Pecoraro shared that thought, I couldn't help but think of La'Trice Hall (Hartford) and Hannah Rehbaum (Brockport), two former players of Sister Maria's. Both were part of a 2013 PrepTalkTV episode with Sister Maria, one that we resurfaced this week following' Sister Maria's passing.

(It just so happened – and I suppose Sister may have had something to do with this – that as I walked out of the church following the service and across a snowy parking lot, I ran into Hannah's parents).

Hall and Rehbaum both learned plenty from Sister Maria during All-Western New York careers for Sacred Heart, both have gone on to collegiate success on and off the court, and both are interested in becoming coaches. Hall, who is majoring in psychology, and Rehbaum, an education major, have both applied for the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association's 15th annual “So You Want To Be A Coach” program.

And that's just two players. From just one of Sister Maria's teams.

It is overwhelming to try and quantify what kind of impact Sister Maria had throughout her decades of leading young women, from her groundbreaking start in creating Sacred Heart's program in the 1980s, to her year-in, year-out excellence with the Sharks, and also at Canisius College, Marquette, and Villa Maria.

Dick Gallagher presents Sister Maria Pares with her 2015 Prep Talk Hall of Fame plaque. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

That kind of impact on thousands of athletes was just one of the reasons that Sister Maria was the clearest of choices to become just the second member of The News' Prep Talk Hall of Fame in 2015 (following Dick Gallagher in the awards' inaugural year).

In thinking of Sister Maria this past week, and the legacy she has left, I kept coming back to the 2015 Prep Talk Awards.

Below are the remarks – cobbled together from my notes from that night – that I was beyond proud to make for one of the evening's final, special awards.

* * *

Our next honoree – I banged heads with a few times.

Once, there was an issue I had written about involving the state Catholic association and how teams were determined for the overall state basketball championship. I had my own ideas, the person on the other end had theirs.

I was getting fired up. Co-workers couldn't help but notice this, especially when they could hear my exasperation level, especially when the phone call went on for about 90 minutes.

After I hung up the phone with a sigh, one of them asked who I was duking it out with. 

"Sister Maria." 

In that discussion she was doing what she does – fighting for her kids. In this case, it wasn't just her team, but the student-athletes from her league. She was sticking up for them to make sure they had the same kind of opportunities to be in the playoffs that members of the downstate Catholic schools did.

A couple of years ago she was a guest – with her players – on PrepTalkTV, and it was one of our most popular episodes.

That's because she was simply Sister: Frank, no-nonsense, honest about parents and their role in relation to that of a coach, and what young people need in order to grow, to mature, to succeed. It was fantastic.

And to think, I've been witness to just a sliver of her legacy. She was a pioneer and trailblazer for women's sports. At one point, she simultaneously coached Sacred Heart and Canisius College – and did so successfully for both.

It should be noted that we made the decision to honor her well before we all learned that this past season would be her last one at Sacred Heart.

I was present this past Saturday night at a celebration for her at Sacred Heart, listening to stories from women of various ages who had been inspired, affected, driven by their coach. She literally has made an impact on generation after generation.  

And she's certainly not done. She starts a new chapter at Villa Maria, where she will be an assistant for their new program.

This year's one and only inductee to the Prep Talk Hall of Fame is ...

The one, and only, Sister Maria Pares.

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