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Maryland’s oldest Catholic girls school, Institute of Notre Dame, announces closing

Maryland’s oldest Catholic college preparatory school for girls, an institution that resolutely continued educating young women in the same East Baltimore building for more 170 years, announced Tuesday that it is closing its doors.

The Institute of Notre Dame, whose graduates have included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski, will close June 30 in the midst of a pandemic that prevents anyone from spending time inside the building during the school’s last days.

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“We had hoped to have a different outcome and have been trying valiantly the last several years to build a sustainable future,” leaders wrote in an email to the IND community Tuesday.

They cited declining enrollment, financial difficulties and a need to raise millions of dollars, in part to cover at least $5 million in building repairs, as some of the reasons for the closure.

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“It has recently become clear that there is no way forward — in spite of the tireless efforts of the Sisters, the Board of Trustees and the school’s leadership team," said Sister Charmaine Krohe, the leader of the School Sisters of Notre Dame of Atlantic-Midwest Province, and Sister Patricia Murphy, the chair of the board of trustees.

Institute of Notre Dame Graduating Class - 1933
Institute of Notre Dame Graduating Class - 1933 (Baltimore Sun)

IND’s first class graduated in July 1864, as cannon fire from the Civil War could be heard in the distance according to the school’s history. The school persevered through outbreaks of disease, riots and a declining city population. In the 1970s, as other preparatory schools moved out to the suburbs, IND remained at its campus. The school has a recent history of educating a diverse group of girls and sending them all to college.

As news of the announcement spread Tuesday afternoon, graduates in the city and around the country expressed outrage and sadness, saying the institution had shaped who they would become and, particularly, their moral values and ethics.

“When I heard today that the Institute of Notre Dame would be closing its doors permanently a profound sadness came over me," Mikulski said in a statement. “Baltimore is truly losing a treasured institution."

Mikulski said she learned as much about life’s values as she did Latin or literature.

“My favorite activities were drama and debating," she said. "Though at IND I did have two failures: sewing — Sister Lucretia wept at my buttonholes; and geometry — I’ve been trying to learn the angles ever since.”

“Sad news," Pelosi tweeted. “My mother and I both went to IND. My brother Tommy was a longtime board member. Its creed — Pro Deo et Patria — is enshrined in our hearts.”

The creed means “for God and country.”

Martha McKenna, a 1992 graduate, and board chair of Emerge Maryland, credited her time at IND for shaping her eventual career in politics.

“My complete love for Baltimore City came from going to school at IND,” McKenna said. “My commitment to social justice comes from the values of IND. I just can’t even really imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t had those four years at IND.“

She recalled being chosen to give then-Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke a tour of the school and being drawn to social justice through the well-rounded education.

“It meant the world to me,” said Alexis Poindexter, the 2019 valedictorian who is now at Williams College.

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After initially struggling a bit with academics, she said the faculty helped her conquer the work. She said the sisters were a guiding influence on her, particularly Sister Jane Cayer.

“It made me a more kind and gentle person, which I don’t always know if I was," she said. Only a few minutes after hearing the news, she said, she was texting friends and about to call Sister Jane and “cry and rant ... I can’t believe they are closing."

Valerie Featherstone, left, receives holiday food from Institute of Notre Dame students, clockwise from left, Dara Cullum, Micayla Wilson, Aaliyah Derry, Molly Joynes, and Sister Hilda "Hildie" Marie Sutherland in this file photo.
Valerie Featherstone, left, receives holiday food from Institute of Notre Dame students, clockwise from left, Dara Cullum, Micayla Wilson, Aaliyah Derry, Molly Joynes, and Sister Hilda "Hildie" Marie Sutherland in this file photo. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

John Pica, a former state senator who raised money for a scholarship in honor of his late sister, said the news was heartbreaking. He said many students cried on the video conference as the closure was announced.

“It was devastating to these children and their families,” he said. “One hundred seventy-three years of dreams and memories are now compromised and faded.”

The decision was made, according to Krohe and Murphy, because the school’s financial situation worsened. Enrollment had declined by 43% in five years, and major contributors were advising the board they would not continue to give money. With 90% of the student body receiving financial aid and the tuition already discounted by 30%, there was not enough revenue.

The school, whose building had stood on Aisquith Street in East Baltimore for more than a century, needed $5 million in immediate repairs and $34 million to make it a state-of-the-art facility.

“And now, COVID-19 has caused significant, added financial hardship,” Krohe and Murphy wrote in the letter to the community.

The school was founded by a group of School Sisters of Notre Dame, who had launched schools throughout Europe, and decided to venture to America. The first school they built was in Baltimore, but the sisters continued to expand to other states. The Baltimore location “has been regarded as sacred ground,” said Mike Reeb, a former teacher.

During the Civil War, the sisters helped slaves reach freedom as part of the Underground Railroad. They tended to students and each other during the pandemic of 1918. During the Baltimore riots in 1968, the school was left untouched except that the words “soul sisters” had been scrawled across the building, according to a 1997 story in the Baltimore Sun. The school stayed in its deteriorating neighborhood throughout the recent decades.

Photo from a 1977 basketball game between Mercy and Institute of Notre Dame.
Photo from a 1977 basketball game between Mercy and Institute of Notre Dame. (Courtesy of Mercy High School / Baltimore Sun)

“The story of the history of Catholic education in Baltimore can’t be told without beginning with the Institute of Notre Dame,” said Archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine, adding that it has been a beacon of Catholic education for generations.

The Archdiocese, he said, is committed to helping its students find other Catholic schools to attend.

Christine Goins, a 2005 graduate now living in North Carolina, said she was shocked to learn that the institution will not be around for future generations.

“IND was a place to be yourself...," she said. "It was a place where you could sing at the top of your lungs in her lunchrooms and solemnly pray in her beautiful chapel hours later.”

She said education extended “beyond the plaster walls, high windows, and gorgeous woodwork to the streets beyond, where we learned the importance of giving back and helping others.”

Pica’s sister, Maria Pica, graduated in 1971 and used to pull out her uniform and recite IND cheers during family holiday gatherings. She died of leukemia in 2006.

Pica said he worries about the fate of students who now must find new schools to attend — and figure out how to pay for them, but hopes the school will offer them assistance.

In their email, the leadership said they “deeply regret that we cannot be together physically, to comfort and support each other.” But they added that they hoped to hold a closing ceremony that would allow the community “to mourn, to celebrate and to remember all that IND has meant to us.”

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Librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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