Sister Maria Pares, OSF, a legend in Western New York women's basketball history, an inductee of multiple halls of fame, and a vocal opponent of misogyny in sports, died Jan. 20, 2017, at age 75, due to complications related to cancer. Throughout her years of service, Sister Maria was considered to be a strong and feisty coach on the court who also enjoyed helping young women excel on a personal level.
A Buffalo native, the former Georgeann Pares was born Feb. 22, 1941, to Thomas J. and Josephine E. (Capitumino) Pares. Sister Maria graduated from Sacred Heart Academy in Amherst in 1958 and joined the Sisters of St. Francis of Christian Charity in Stella Niagara in 1962. From early on, Sister Maria wished to pursue a different path from what was considered to be appropriate for women religious, and she was passionate about sports. After graduating from Rosary Hill College, now Daemen College in Amherst, she received a master's degree in physical education from West Virginia University in 1973, the year she began serving at Sacred Heart.
Debbie Laux, who was a student athlete for Sister Maria at both SHA and Canisius College in Buffalo, later served as her assistant coach for 16 years.
"She was a fantastic coach. Her unwillingness to give up on the court helped her in her fight battling cancer for 15 or 16 years," Laux remembered. "She was a very tenacious woman. She never backed down from anything, and she was a fantastic teacher with regards to basketball and sports in general. She did coach other sports at Sacred Heart back when I was there. She coached volleyball, softball and badminton. She was a great teacher on and off the floor, even teaching young women about life and how to succeed."
From 1973-86, Sister Maria coached basketball at Sacred Heart, cementing her status in the region and in Catholic schools. She would return again to SHA later. Throughout her tenure, she amassed a remarkable record of 229 wins and 10 losses, with a 127-game winning streak. In 1986, Sister Maria guided Sacred Heart to a New York State Class C championship. Her teams won multiple Monsignor Martin League titles.
In addition to coaching at Sacred Heart, Sister Maria compiled a dominant record at Canisius College while coaching at SHA. The women's basketball team boasted a 108-39 record under Sister Maria's tutelage. In 1982-83, they reached the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals and won the New York State Division II title. In 1986, she began coaching at Marquette University in Wisconsin. In 1999, she returned to her alma mater. Including these additional 16 years of coaching, her career record at SHA was 343-66.
In sharing the sad news with its community, Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart issued the following statement: "The legacy of Sister Maria Pares '58, OSF, at Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart spans six decades and includes: legendary coaching success without parallel throughout Western New York; the founding of our Sports Hall of Fame and Annual Sister Maria Pares Golf Outing, which supports tuition assistance; Honorary Chair of the Celebrate our Tradition, Build our Future capital campaign that allowed us to build SHA's state-of-the-art athletic center; and receipt of the Christus Super Omnia Award, the highest honor bestowed upon an alumna of the academy."
"Sister Maria was a pioneer in women's rights and gender equality issues and paved the way for the next generation of women to leave their mark on the sport and the world. Her spirit and love for the academy will be dearly missed by all who knew her, yet we are comforted knowing she is now at peace in the eternal presence of her deeply beloved God."
Shortly after the news broke of her passing, Bill Maher, Canisius' director of athletics, expressed similar thoughts about Sister Maria. She was "an icon for women's basketball in Western New York" and the state, he said, adding, "Canisius College is proud to have been part of her career and the entire college is proud of the impact she had on our community, both on and off the basketball court. Sister had a presence about her in every interaction that always left you with an impression that you could, and should, try to do more."
From 1995-2003, Sister Maria was director of athletic activities for the diocese, and she served briefly at Villa Maria College in Buffalo. In addition to being named to sports halls of fame at both SHA and Canisius, Sister Maria was a member of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame's class of 1996, and in 2012, the Basketball Coaches Association of New York inducted her into the New York State Basketball Hall of Fame. She was also a past vice president of the Monsignor Martin Girls' High School League.
"I was originally an athletic director when she ran the girls' division of Monsignor Martin. However, my connection to her goes back to when I was in high school. I've probably known her for over 45 years now," said Brian Kiszewski, diocesan director of elementary athletics. "I succeeded her in taking over the executive director's job of Monsignor Martin. I still worked with her because she was the New York state representative at the New York State Catholic High School Association meetings. She still served as the president for that for maybe about five or six years into my tenure, so we would travel together."
When asked what Sister Maria accomplished for women, Laux said, "She was always fighting for equal rights for women, equal playing time and court time. She just did a fabulous job with that, and she was remarkable in a male-dominated sports world. Even back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were several young women from Sacred Heart who got college scholarships to play sports back then."
"(She) helped put the spotlight on women as student athletes at Canisius. She was a great role model and she always advocated for the girls," said Mike Rappl, a former Canisius softball and women's basketball coach. "She taught them to be tough, and she taught them to be the best they could be in all aspects of their lives."
Sister Maria was the sister of Maria (late Ronald) Shantler, Thomas C. (Debra) Pares and John (Ellen) Pares, and an aunt of nine and great-aunt of 12. She is also survived by many cousins.
Amigone Funeral Home will hold a wake for Sister Maria Thursday and Friday 4 to 8 p.m at the 1132 Delaware Ave., Buffalo, location. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at St. Michael's Church in Buffalo, after which she will be buried in United German and French Cemetery in Cheektowaga.