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‘Our hearts will never forget’: Institute of Notre Dame, Maryland’s oldest Catholic girls school, celebrates its last graduation

The final graduates of the Institute of Notre Dame wore matching masks along with their traditional white gowns, and each held a dozen long-stemmed roses as they received their diplomas and sang their alma mater Sunday, bidding a bittersweet farewell to Maryland’s oldest Catholic girls school.

The coronavirus pandemic had interrupted their senior spring. Then in May, the Baltimore private school announced that it would close for good in June, amid declining enrollment and other financial difficulties. The news made the graduates all the more determined to have an in-person ceremony, one last hurrah.

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“We are so inseparable that we refused to end this journey how we started it: alone and without our sisters,” class president Symone Stephens said during her address. “Fortunately, now, we know our potential. ... Honestly, I can’t even explain to y’all how excited I am to see the amazing things this group of girls are going to do for the future.”

The 156th commencement ceremony Sunday carried an extra air of finality for the school, an Aisquith Street stalwart that had stayed in its original East Baltimore home educating students and serving neighbors for decades after other private schools relocated to Baltimore County.

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IND’s first class of students graduated in July 1864, with Civil War cannon fire booming in the distance, according to the school’s history, and the school persevered through disease, riots and a continually declining city population to stay in East Baltimore.

“Even if we forget our teachers’ names or how to use the Pythagorean theorem, we will always remember the feeling we got when walking through those front doors and climbing those slate steps for the first time: the feeling of being home.”


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Its last class, graduating amid the COVID-19 pandemic, sat 6 feet apart and fanned themselves with their programs in the 90-degree July heat during their belated outdoor commencement ceremony at Notre Dame of Maryland University on Sunday.

Head of School Christine E. Szala remembered meeting members of the class of 2020 during their freshman year four years earlier, the same time she arrived. Listening to the graduates sing the “Ave Maria” brought tears to her eyes.

“None of us knew then that the class of 2020 would be the final graduating class of IND,” she said.

Szala said she had enjoyed witnessing the students’ growth into “confident, thoughtful, passionate young women” who will carry on the institute’s legacy alongside its other alumnae around the world.

“You, the class of 2020, the 173rd graduating class, are now joining that long lineage and you carry that mantle and the responsibility of being the last group of sisters to be joining this legion of women,” Szala said. “I have no doubt you will rise to the occasion, as you always have done. You are the class that can and will carry the spirit and charism of IND. ... I couldn’t pick a stronger class.”

Valedictorian Mickella Harris said in her address that the various labels that could be applied to the class of 2020 “don’t tell the whole story.”

“History is going to remember us as the first class born after 9/11, or the class that didn’t get a prom,” Harris said. “IND is going to remember us as the last graduating class after a 173-year history. But that’s not what I’m going to remember. ...

“Even if we forget our teachers’ names or how to use the Pythagorean theorem, we will always remember the feeling we got when walking through those front doors and climbing those slate steps for the first time: the feeling of being home. Our hearts will never forget.”

The graduating seniors received a standing ovation from their teachers and families as they formally joined the ranks of distinguished IND alumnae, including Baltimore natives House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski.

Stephens, the class president, said she envisions her classmates going on to fulfill their dreams as congresswomen, Broadway actors, robotics engineers, heart surgeons, teachers, activists and artists.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the girls in this very class became president of the United States,” she said.

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After an invocation prayer, speeches and awards, the graduates picked up their diplomas one by one from a table that once belonged to the late Sister Hildie Sutherland, an IND mainstay whose “Hildie’s Helpers” food donation project has served the needy for more than 60 years.

A sense of reality then began to set in for Ramata Lam: Her time at IND was complete.

The 18-year-old said she plans to attend the University of Maryland, College Park in the fall.

“Now I have to get prepared to go to the real world,” Lam said.

Her fellow graduate Carlene Mwaura, who is headed to Cornell University in the fall, said she couldn’t believe her high school was really closed for good.

She also recalled the efforts of the seniors to make sure the class of 2020′s in-person graduation ceremony took place.

“It was crazy how hard we had to fight for our ceremony,” she said.

The piano-accompanied commencement — punctuated by balloons occasionally popping in the hot sun — provided quite a contrast from the unending buzz of cicadas that were the soundtrack of Sister Kathy Jager’s 1970 graduation from IND, she recalled with a laugh.

Jager, the religious studies chair, has spent more than three decades in the English, religion and campus ministry departments. “I am the person I am today mostly because of IND,” she said.

“IND is not a school or a building,” Jager added. “It’s an experience. There are thousands of alumnae who have that experience in them, so the IND spirit, the IND values will continue.”

Sandy Quick-Boehme, a 1988 graduate who lives in Anne Arundel County, felt conflicting emotions during her daughter Amanda’s graduation ceremony.

Quick-Boehme was excited for her daughter and touched to be among the last to receive the ceremonial single rose given by graduating students to alumnae family members. But she was heartbroken by the closing of their alma mater, which has long instilled leadership, communication and confidence in its pupils, she said.

“It’s so hard to see IND end,” Quick-Boehme said. “It meant a lot not just to the students, but to the entire community of Baltimore. ... I wanted my daughter to have that experience, and I’m so glad she did.”

More than a few pairs of eyes welled above the mandatory masks, and alumnae among the faculty and families in attendance couldn’t help but step forward to join in, as the graduates sang the alma mater:

“All too soon our paths must sever,

May it be our life’s endeavor,

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Thy strong way to keep forever,

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Loved Notre Dame!”

Szala encouraged the graduates to hold dear the lessons they had learned at IND, just as they did with their memories of the lovable Sister Hildie and her trademark Baltimore vernacular.

“Let’s all be sure to say to one another, ‘Bye, Hon,‘” Szala said.

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