When St. Frances Academy needed another $2 million to build its community center in East Baltimore, one nun turned to her "good friends and two of the very finest persons I know" — the Cosbys.
Sister Mary Alice Chineworth, an Oblate Sister of Providence and one of the school's longest-serving teachers, called the couple. Camille Cosby said yes right away. Her husband, Bill, one of the country's best-known comedians, insisted repeatedly, amid much laughter at a dedication ceremony Friday, that he was not consulted.
"I am still wondering why she thought nuns could humble a Protestant," he said.
His wife, "an Oblate girl," as the sisters call their graduates, said, "I have known Sister for a long time, and it was easy to say yes. The Oblate Sisters are committed to teaching. I know the history of St. Frances in terms of sending out scholars, and I thought, 'Why not?'"
The couple made the gift several years ago, and the community center was officially renamed Friday before a crowd of more than 300 school officials, faculty, students and guests. A sign that reads "Drs. Camille & Bill Cosby Community Center" in bold blue letters was unveiled just below the roofline.
Camille Cosby first addressed her mother, asking, "Mom, did you ever think you would see my name on a building?
"This is the pinnacle of honors and one of the best contributions my husband and I could make into the education of human beings," she said.
Camille Cosby, who like her husband holds a doctorate in education, thanked the Oblate Sisters, calling them "righteous, tenacious women" who gave her a firm academic foundation during her elementary years at St. Cyprian's School in Washington. The Oblates, the oldest African-American order of nuns in the U.S., were founded in Baltimore in the early 19th century and have for decades instilled in their charges a lifelong feeling of "can do and can be," she said.
"I can still hear their words in terms of respect for yourself and for others," she said.
The lessons, academic and otherwise, took root. She thought she might forgo stockings under her long, flowing skirt on such a warm afternoon, but then reconsidered, knowing the sisters would frown on bare legs and ankles.
To the students, she said, "If you are not aware today, you will come to know the gift of this education."
The Cosbys' gift was the largest in the 184-year history of the school, which has an enrollment of about 165 students. Between 2003 and 2012, 98 percent of the school's alumni earned a college degree within five years of graduation.
The Cosby Center will continue to provide many services to the community, including after-school and adult literacy programs and job training. It fulfills the sisters' mission of "uniting the school to the community, and the community to the school."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, also an Oblate girl, called St. Frances "a beacon of hope for Baltimore's most vulnerable young people." She earned a few laughs herself when she invited the couple "to put your names on anything you like" in the city. After her remarks, Bill Cosby requested that all jokes be left to him.
Chineworth, a nun for 75 years, said she knows she can count on the Cosbys. "I might ask them again [for a donation] later on, if I live long enough," said the sister, who turns 95 in July.