Firefighters threaded hoses through the upper windows of the Institute of Notre Dame two weeks ago as they extinguished a steeple fire at the adjacent Urban Bible Fellowship Church. The damaged structure, originally built as St. James the Less Roman Catholic Church, stands only an alley away from the East Baltimore girls high school.
The head of school, Christine Szala, described rushing back that day. She was not permitted in the school during the height of the four-alarm blaze. But after the fire was under control, she and a few members of her staff inspected the peripheral damage to the venerable school complex at Asquith Street and Ashland Avenue.
The intense heat from the church fire broke windows at the school, and a ceiling collapsed from water damage in one of its wings. The firefighters contained the fire to the church, built between 1865 and 1885. A gilded cross topped the church’s mighty steeple.
“I went up to one of the firemen and asked, ‘Is there any way to get the cross?’ I never learned his name, and he said, ‘I’ll do what I can,’ ” Szala said.
She then spent part of the day inspecting the sprawling, and meticulously maintained, Institute of Notre Dame and its carved oak staircases, roomy classrooms and long academic halls.
“After a while, we walked into the school’s board room, and there was the cross, or at least most of it,” Szala said. “We all became emotional. Tears came to our eyes.”
She wanted the cross saved before it disappeared or was carted off by a souvenir seeker.
"I was beyond excited and thankful. My prayers were answered,” said the Rev. John Williams of the Urban Bible Fellowship Church. “I know there was a higher power watching out for all of us, and until the time comes when we can rebuild, I know our cross is safe and still looking over our church, the school and the community.”
“The firefighters took special care of the cross and recognized its historic significance,” Szala said.
“I knew how important the cross was to the church community, our students, alumnae and the School Sisters of Notre Dame, and the surrounding neighborhood,” she said. “That cross and church have withstood the test of time. It stood tall over Baltimore during the Great Fire and Spanish flu. It’s a beacon of hope and a sign of peace, and in these uncertain times that symbolism doesn’t go unrecognized.”
Several days ago Greg Carrick, the school’s grounds and buildings chief, brought the surviving cross to the school’s entry hall, where it now rests in safekeeping. The school will return it to the church as its rebuilding happens.
“It’s made of copper and is actually in good condition,” said Carrick.
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The entry hall where the cross rests temporarily is a place of honor at the school. For decades, Sister Hilda Sutherland, known as Sister Hildie, sat there at the school’s front door and greeted arriving students. There is a window at her perch through which students could pass through a note if they were excused for lateness or had a doctor’s appointment.
The cross has not been separated from the steeple pinnacle since 1983, when it was temporarily removed during a renovation. Apparatus to illuminate the steeple was being installed, and the cross was re-gilded so that light would reflect off it. The cross was originally placed atop the spire in 1885.
Though the cross is relatively undamaged, the wooden steeple fell into the small space between the church and the school, Saint Joseph’s Alley. The steeple, made of heavy wood timbers, is a charred ruin.