Former school's new assignment is to transform into Independence Place

Marian House launches $5 million renovation on former Blessed Sacrament School.

The classrooms at the former Blessed Sacrament School on Old York Road look as if someone turned a key after the last students went home in June 1972, leaving them untouched for decades.

Marks on the hardwood floors reveal where desks sat at the solidly constructed school in the Pen-Lucy neighborhood. The varnish on the cloakroom partitions has weathered to a dark mahogany tone.

A slate blackboard is chalked "March 8, 1975" — apparently the agenda of a parish Boy Scout meeting.

On the board in another room, used for religious education 40 years ago, the Hail Mary is written.

Next week there will be a ceremony to launch a renovation at the former school. Initially constructed around 1919-1921, it will make a transition into 22 apartments for homeless women and their children.

Officials of Marian House paid the Archdiocese of Baltimore $808,000 for the former Blessed Sacrament school, convent and rectory late last year. The 1921 church, a separate structure, remains open for religious services and was not part of the transaction.

Marian House describes itself as a "supportive housing nonprofit organization." Its goal is to develop the complex to house — and support — women and children who will reside in the former classrooms and loft apartments in what will be called Independence Place.

"The school was really the cornerstone of the neighborhood," said Frank Bossle, a former Marian House board chair who graduated from Blessed Sacrament School's eighth grade in 1966. "In the summertime, the sisters who lived in the convent walked through the neighborhood in the evening."

Marian House itself began 35 years ago through a similar transformation. The old St. Bernard School on Gorsuch Avenue in Waverly had closed, and members of the Sisters of Mercy and the School Sisters of Notre Dame wanted to keep a presence in the neighborhood. They began assisting homeless women, many of them recently released from incarceration.

Tenants at the existing Marian House location pay rent on a sliding scale. Some get an apartment for $50 a month. Others will pay about $200. Not all residents are from the city; Baltimore County has a contract with Marian House to help with its homeless population as well.

"This is a really good fit for us," said Libby Keady, Marian House's director of special projects. "Many of our residents work as housekeepers or in food service at local hospitals. We are a block away from the York Road bus line. The Weinberg YMCA is nearby and there's a good food market in Waverly. We make sure our residences have an atmosphere of calm and a sense of supportive sisterhood."

Keady also said: "We work with each resident to guide toward self-sufficiency. It takes two interviews before you can stay in our programs. We are not an emergency shelter."

She said moving into a second Roman Catholic parish complex — only about a mile from the current Marian House — will help staff and residents stay connected through support meetings the residents attend.

"It's part of our culture. We celebrate life every day," she said.

She said the vacant 25,000-square-foot school building will undergo its rehabilitation beginning in a few weeks. Marian House has hired Gant Brunnett Architects and Southway Builders.

The conversion will cost more than $5 million. Marian House raised that amount through grants from the state of Maryland's housing and health departments, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg and France-Merrick foundations, and two anonymous gifts. The project was also helped by three Federal Home Loan Banks, which worked with PNC, M&T and Capital banks to award $1.5 million.

"This has been a dream for us," Keady said. "It took us three years to raise the money and make this happen."

For many of those connected to the school decades ago, the transformation is a way to bring new activity to a venerable landmark.

Said Bossle: "My old classmates are telling me this is going to be the greatest use for the building since the school closed in 1972."

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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