Remembering Sister Maria Pares: Nun, Basketball Coach, and Trailblazer

Maria Pares was one of the most successful basketball coaches in New York history. She also happened to be a nun.

by Eric Nusbaum
Mar 6 2017, 3:10pm

Photo courtesy Suzanne Casey

Sister Maria Pares always knew she wanted to be a coach. She knew it from the time she was a high school student at the Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart, she knew it when she was teaching elementary school after college, and she knew it when, in her early twenties, she became a nun. And she coached until the end.

She was born Georgeanne Pares, in Buffalo, New York on February 25, 1941 to Thomas and Josephine. She died on January 20, as one of the most successful and iconic high school basketball coaches in New York state history. She was 75 years old, and had spent her final fifteen years battling breast cancer and its complications.

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Pares' high school alma mater and the site of many of her greatest achievements, Sacred Heart was founded by an order of nuns called the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity. The Sisters arrived in western New York from the Netherlands in the 1870s, and opened the school shortly thereafter.

"Rejecting the common practice of limiting a girl's schooling to domestic skills, the Sisters sought to educate young women in the humanities, arts and sciences," the Sacred Heart website explains, "while providing religious instruction and developing strong moral character in their students."

For Pares, the path to strong moral character ran through sports—particularly basketball. She was a short, petite woman and a feisty, demanding coach, who gained lifelong loyalty from her players. She was a steely advocate for women's athletics both before and after the passage of Title IX, and a competitor so unyielding that behind her back, officials used to call her "Attila the Nun."

"She was a personality," said Edith Wyss, who was Sacred Heart's principal from 1989-03. "She was just very dedicated, very committed, loved sports, loved the challenge. She had a short fuse, when things didn't go her way. She saw this as her ministry, and her contribution to the good of girls."

Pares once won 127 straight games at Sacred Heart while simultaneously coaching the women's team at nearby Canisius College, a Division II program. (In two different stints at the school she amassed a career record of 343-66 at Sacred Heart, and 108-39 at Canisius.) In the offseasons, she coached softball, track and field, and badminton. Her former players described her as a strict, but purposeful taskmaster—a perfectionist, who valued process and execution more than results. She didn't wear a habit, but rather preppy clothes, like LaCoste alligator polos.

"I used to laugh a little bit because she was so tough," said Theresa Wenzel who played for Pares and is now the president of the WNBA's Atlanta Dream. "You thought of nuns being disciplinarian always. You laugh and you hear the stories about the nuns taking the rulers and hitting you on the hand. But you never thought of a woman coach, especially a nun, being so challenging."

Pares had little patience for egos, and even less for laziness. She did not abide superstars. Every ounce of her energy went into her teams, and she expected the same from her players—and for all this, players flocked to her from throughout the Buffalo region, despite the fact that she didn't recruit.

"She was an amazing woman. Pioneer," said Suzanne Casey, who played with Wenzel. "I had my choice. My mom and my sister all went to a certain school. I went to Sacred Heart Academy for Sister Maria. I had to take three buses. It was far from my house. I went there to play for her."

Casey recalls seeing Pares at a basketball camp the summer before her freshman year, and informing her that she would be attending Sacred Heart. Pares just nodded and said "that's nice."

Pares left western New York in 1986 to take the head coaching job at Marquette University, where she brushed up against national celebrity. She was featured in Sports Illustrated and the New York Times. She even appeared as a guest on the short-lived Late Show Starring Joan Rivers. Pares, whose colleagues and former players all said she had a great sense of humor, managed to hold her own with Rivers.

"Sports were my passion, but I wasn't allowed to follow it because nuns didn't do that," Pares once said in an interview with The Buffalo News. "Nuns didn't do much of anything but teach and scrub floors, I guess. Women didn't do sports. We weren't allowed."

Pares did not wear a habit. Photo courtesy Suzanne Casey.

After becoming a nun, Pares was assigned by the order to teach in West Virginia. She went on to earn a master's degree in sports science at the University of West Virginia in Charleston, before she was sent back to Buffalo to create an athletic department at Sacred Heart in the early 1970s.

"She had a great love for the school and the sisters," said Wyss. "I think like many of us, that's what drew her to enter the convent. She wanted to coach right away, and couldn't for a few years. And back then, there was not even athletics for girls. She kind of bided her time."

Despite the fact that Pares coached at a variety of high schools and universities, Sacred Heart was her spiritual home base. She left Marquette in 1990 to care for her mother back in Buffalo. In 1999, she returned to Sacred Heart and picked up where she left off. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, but she continued coaching and remained at Sacred Heart until the end of the 2014-15 season when the school didn't renew her contract.

Her firing set off a heated debate in the community—after all, by then Pares had been elected to the Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame and New York State Basketball Hall of Fame. It was seen as a movement away from more traditional Catholic school dynamics, and sports dynamics for that matter. Once upon a time, discipline was expected and coaches and teachers always got the benefit of the doubt. That was no longer the case, and a couple of parents had apparently called the school to complain about Pares' coaching techniques.

"You can't have a tough coach anymore," said Casey. "You can't have someone that does things the old-fashioned way. You can't have an old school tough coach because of the sensitivity from the children to the parents."

Pares took an assistant job at nearby Villa Maria College, where she had previously worked as athletic director. She coached her final seasons while going through chemotherapy and other cancer treatments. She maintained her passion for basketball until the end.

"She loved sports," recalled Wyss. "She had the TV channel so she could watch college girl's sports, the WNBA.... She would just tape games to watch them to see whether they were doing right or wrong. She just loved it."

A group of her former players at Sacred Heart are hoping to rename the school's basketball gym after Pares. In their estimate, the gym wouldn't have been built at all without the contributions of her former players.

"She definitely empowered us at our all-girls school to play like the boys," said Casey. "To push and do more. She would jokingly also make little comments about how we should scrimmage the so-and-so boys team. She wasn't like a feminist in the sense that she was angry about it—that we weren't getting our fair share. I think she thought that the sport needed to advance and she did everything in her power to advance it. She wanted us to be better so that people said, 'Wow, look what can be accomplished, look what these girls can do, look how good they are.'"

"I will miss her," Casey added. "She taught me so much about life and basketball."

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