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The Archdiocese of Baltimore broke ground Wednesday for the city’s first new Catholic school in more than 50 years.

Several hundred Catholic leaders, stakeholders, educators and students came together on the vacant plot of land along the 200 block of N. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in West Baltimore’s Poppleton neighborhood that will become the Mother Mary Lange Catholic School. The $24 million project is slated to serve about 520 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade beginning in the fall of 2021.

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Archbishop William E. Lori, 68, told the crowd he was about 8 years old the last time the church built a new school in the city.

In recent years, shrinking enrollment and costly infrastructure upgrades forced the archdiocese to dramatically scale back its portfolio of schools in the city. In 2016, it announced it would close three schools and merge two others. Six years earlier, the archdiocese closed 13 schools, including the beloved Cardinal Gibbons High School in Southwest Baltimore’s Morrell Park neighborhood.

But the decision to close schools, officials said in 2018, left a void in an area that’s been plagued by high crime and poverty. Those issues were put into stark relief after the 2015 unrest following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody.

Lori recalled the unrest and said it was clear to him that people were not upset over Gray’s death alone but rather marginalization.

“The church and other institutions must stand with all our residents in addressing inequities and must accompany them in helping them envision a better life for themselves and for their children,” Lori said.

City Council President Brandon Scott Wednesday delivered a speech, stating that he could think of no better place to build a symbol of equity in Baltimore than in the shadow of the nearby “Highway to Nowhere,” a 1.2 mile stretch of roadway that was supposed to connect downtown Baltimore with Interstate 70. Opponents in city neighborhoods won a protracted battle against state highway planners to kill the project, but not before thousands of West Baltimore’s predominantly black residents saw their homes demolished.

“This school is a catalyst for enhanced education and opportunity for students, parents and neighborhoods that have sometimes been forgotten in Baltimore,” Scott said.

Catholic leaders said in a new release that the archdiocese anticipates offering tuition assistance for between 80% and 90% of what will be a mostly non-Catholic student population. About 400 of the students will initially come from Holy Angels Catholic School in Morrell Park and Saints James & John Catholic School in EAst Baltimore’s Johnston Square neighborhood.

Anthony Allen, 30, sat on the front step of his aunt’s house looking out at the groundbreaking. He had assumed the new school would be a charter, and was surprised to learn the archdiocese was developing the project.

“I love the fact that they’re putting in a new school there,” he said. “I don’t mind it being a parochial school.”

Allen said he used to tutor some children in the neighborhood when he was younger and found that many had low grades and not a lot of educational support.

Lori shared the history of the school’s namesake in an opinion piece published by the Baltimore Sun earlier in the month. Lange emigrated from Cuba to Baltimore in the early 1800s in hopes of serving refugees of the Haitian Revolution, who were flooding into Maryland at the time.

She established the first religious order for women of African descent in 1829 — the Oblate Sisters of Providence — and devoted herself to serving the needs of black youth and adults.

Baltimore Sun reporters Talia Richman and Colin Campbell contributed to this article.

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