After Kerry Chandler moved to Baltimore last year to become an executive at Under Armour, she discovered a link to her new hometown that stretched back to before she was born.
Chandler, 51, a San Diego native who headed human resources for the NBA and ESPN before taking on that role for the Baltimore-based athletic apparel maker, found that her late aunt had moved to Baltimore as a teenager in 1947, when it was the only place she knew for a young black girl to become a nun.
Lee LeBlanc professed her vows with the Oblate Sisters of Providence, teaching nuns who run St. Frances Academy, the world's oldest continuously operating African-American Catholic high school, founded in 1828.
When she joined Under Armour, Chandler said, she was encouraged by Kevin Plank, its founder and CEO, to get involved in her new community. But she had no idea what to do until she and her parents, visiting from California, made an impromptu visit to the convent on St. Frances' grounds. To the family's surprise, the nun who answered the door not only remembered Chandler's aunt but had grown up with her in Oklahoma and joined the Oblates around the same time.
"This is a sign," Chandler recalled thinking.
The convent visit led Chandler to the red-brick school on East Chase Street, where she is launching a scholarship program in honor of her aunt. The Sister Mary Joseph LeBlanc, OSP Scholars Program will start next school year with an annual $10,000 gift from Chandler that will offer $2,500 in tuition assistance to two boys and two girls.
"It impressed me," Chandler said of St. Frances, where she hopes to become a mentor to scholarship recipients who show "skill and will. … Is your heart in it and you just need the money to get an education?"
The Oblate Sisters, the oldest congregation of African-American nuns in the Roman Catholic Church, started out teaching children of color in people's homes, then an illegal act, before opening the school. Students come from some of the city's poorest neighborhoods, yet more than 90 percent go on to college.
The scholarships will be offered to those with a financial need. About 70 percent of the school's 150 students fall below the poverty level, and many come from families with one or no parents. Applicants will be required to write an essay, maintain good academic and social standing, and meet with Chandler. Her goal is to offer opportunities to poor and underserved students, "so they have the foundation to develop into future, global leaders," she said.
"This will open the door up for a lot of kids and families," said Brian Boles, director of development and community relations at St. Frances, who said that, though financial aid is available, "even the lowest tier is a stretch for many families to afford. I'm hoping this will be a model for other donors."
The school got its start in 1828, founded by Mother Mary Lange as the St. Frances Academy Baltimore School for Colored Girls. It became St. Frances of Rome Academy in the 1850s and moved in 1870 to Chase Street. It became coeducational in the 1970s.
The school emphasizes faith, scholarship, character and opportunity, said Boles, a St. Frances graduate who has worked as a teacher and as the school's baseball coach.
"We'll take chances on kids that other schools won't," Boles said. "Kids, if they know you care, they are more receptive to discipline and structure. Your goal is to become the best student you can be and move on to college."
The school has grown from the brick building in the shadow of the Maryland Penitentiary, with a 2001 addition housing a gymnasium, classrooms and computer labs. A chapel serves as the school's heart.
"We start the day in prayer and end the day in prayer," Boles said.
When Under Armour sought her out, Chandler had been working for Christie's auction house in New York for less than a year and had no intention of leaving. She had worked in human resources for nearly three decades, falling into it by chance after going to an exploratory interview with McDonnell Douglas during a summer break from graduate school and being offered an entry-level job. That led to jobs at Exxon, Motorola, IBM, ESPN, Hong Kong Disney and the NBA, where she worked for more than seven years.
When a headhunter called about Under Armour, "I didn't think I should be talking to another company, but I took the call and talked it through," said Chandler, who realized she missed the world of sports and entertainment.
She agreed to meet with Plank, who was in New York for a board meeting.
"One of the things that influenced me was the way Kevin talked about Baltimore in that first meeting," she said. "He talked about Baltimore a lot and what Baltimore meant to him. … He's talking about this city with so much passion and meaning. It told me something about him and the company."
She started in January 2015 and settled in Fells Point.
The Saturday last summer when Chandler, her parents and her sister showed up on the doorstep at the convent, Sister Brenda Motte happened to answer the door. Motte, 85, said she and Lee LeBlanc grew up together in Okmulgee, Okla., and went to a Catholic school run by the Sisters of the Holy Spirit. Motte said she knew at age 12 that she wanted to be a nun and confided in one of her teachers.
"She said, 'You can't enter my community because we don't take coloreds.' That blew my mind. I was 12 years old," Motte said.
A priest told her about the Oblate Sisters in Baltimore, and she left home at age 15. She recalled that LeBlanc followed her about a year later. Neither she nor her friend, who took the name Sister Mary Joseph, wanted to be teachers, and after they professed their vows, both held other jobs, helping to run the order's mother house in Catonsville. Sister Mary Joseph was in charge of purchasing and planning for the house.
"She was much admired by the young sisters," Motte said.
Sister Mary Joseph left the religious order in 1969 and moved to St. Louis, where she worked in a day care center and married. She died in 2011 at age 88.
"She was always devoted to the Oblate sisters and the mission," Motte said. "I still miss her."
Chandler said she became close to her Aunt Lee while attending Lincoln University in Missouri.
"She would look out for me," Chandler recalled.
But she never knew much about her aunt's previous life as a nun in Baltimore.
When asked what her friend would have thought of a scholarship program in her name, Motte said: "Very generous."