Sister’s personal, professional life took flight

Share this on Facebook Share this on Twitter Print

By Gary Loncki

Nancy Baltus has always looked to the skies.

As a child in Erie, Pennsylvania, her eyes gazed in wonder at nighttime stars. She and her older brother, George, designed and made airplanes of balsa wood and taught neighborhood children the art of flight. Later, George, a flight instructor, taught her how to fly an airplane, and schools educated her in the finer points of aeronautics and astronomy.

At 15, Nancy, wearing a leather flight hat and goggles, sat excitedly in a Waco UPF-7, an open cockpit of a bi-plane George had rebuilt. Later, she took flying lessons.

“I just loved flying,” she said, noting that she was only five recordable hours away from the hours needed to obtain a pilot’s license.

Meeting a need during World War II

During World War II, Nancy took a break from her studies at Mercyhurst College, Erie, when George, now an aeronautical engineer for the Curtiss-Wright aircraft company in Buffalo, told Nancy about the shortage of male aeronautical engineers and a program created by the federal government to train women to oversee necessary changes to military aircraft being built.

Sister Mary Matthew in the 1940s
Sister Mary Matthew in the 1940s

With her interest and solid grades in math, she jumped at the chance. She was subsequently trained at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, leaving with an associate degree in engineering. She ended up working with George at Curtiss-Wright. At first, she explained, she retraced in ink the pencil sketches of designers. Blueprints would then be made from her tracings. Eventually, she would perform trouble-shooting work.

“If something didn’t go together, I would often have to crawl into the fuselage of a plane and figure out what was wrong with its design or a piece that didn’t fit,” she said.

Beginning a life of Mercy and teaching

Nancy loved the work, but something else was taking flight in her life since her days at Mercyhurst where the Sisters of Mercy taught and befriended her.

“I was impressed by their intelligence and friendliness,” she recalled.

On August 15, 1944, Nancy entered the Sisters of Mercy in Titusville, eventually taking the name Sister Mary Matthew and embarking on a career of teaching and an insatiable desire to learn.

At Mercyhurst College (now Mercyhurst University), she was a professor of math and astronomy, dean of students, an interim academic dean, president of the college senate and a member of the board of trustees. She also helped form the Earth Space Science Club and with other teachers took students on field trips to Maho Bay in the Virgin Islands where they slept in tents and studied geology, astronomy and marine biology. In 1967, when Zurn Hall was built, she designed the observatory, which was later named “The Baltus Observatory.”

Teaching career takes flight

Her education includes studying physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York; astrophysics at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., and Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge; organic chemistry at Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pennsylvania; chemistry at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; radioisotopes at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; planetarium education, West Chester State College, Pennsylvania; radio astronomy, Temple University, Philadelphia; and astronomy, University of Hawaii.

She was granted a Fullbright Scholarship in 1977 to attend the Ain Shams University in Cairo, Egypt. There she studied the Egyptian history and monuments.

Also, she did astronomical research at Allegheny Observatory, Pittsburgh; Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona; and Mt. Wilson Observatory, Pasadena, California.

Sister Mary Matthew reminiscing as she looks through an old photo album.

Four years ago, at age 91, she climbed into the open cockpit of a Stearman biplane for a half-hour flight over Erie. “It was beautiful!” she exclaimed afterward.

As she walked from away from the biplane, a reporter asked if she would do it again. She looked up with a smile and answered, “Sure, any day!

Sister Mary Matthew Baltus is a member of the Sisters of Mercy’s New York, Pennsylvania, Pacific West community. Click here to learn more about this community.