A new, $3 million gymnasium is rising behind the stone church and school at Greenmount Avenue and 22nd Street. The athletic center faces Boone Street in a spot where Catholic religious leaders believe that education matters and that schools build better neighborhoods.
“All shopping centers have anchor tenants and we see ourselves as the anchor of this community,” said Sister Margaret “Peggy” Juskelis, the president of Mother Seton Academy.
She walked a visitor upstairs to her school’s roof to get a better view of the gym, where the foundation is complete and waiting for steel to arrive.
There, up at the level of the Victorian Gothic steeple of St. Ann’s Catholic Church, she surveyed the rooftops of the Greater Greenmount Community Association — and downtown — and said: “I see only the possibilities here. I see the challenges in the city. I also see the opportunity."
That opportunity translated into enlarging her educational campus, for which Sister Margaret helped raise the money.
“I like shaking hands and picking pockets,” she said of her fundraising abilities. "A lot of people believe in the mission of this school.”
That mission, she said, is providing a good education to her 84 boys and girls, who are all on scholarship and in the 6th, 7th and 8th grades. About one-third of her students live within walking distance of the academy. The enrollment is 87 percent African American and 13 percent Hispanic.
“We have a competitive admissions process,” she said. “This past spring we had more than 80 students applying for 30 seats.”
The academy has been located for the past 10 years within the granite walls of the former St. Ann’s School, which dates to 1921. That school sat empty for more than four decades until it was rescued by some of Baltimore’s philanthropists and charities — led by Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and his wife, Renee. From that effort came Mother Seton Academy.
“Back in 1993, our school opened at a time when other Catholic schools were closing,” Sister Margaret said.
Named for Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first person born in the United States to be canonized by the church, the academy had outgrown the former convent at St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church on South Ann Street in Fells Point.
Discussing her resolve to improve Baltimore, Sister Margaret said: “You go through Baltimore and see places that still have not recovered from the 1968 riots. The city is not going to get better by moving out.”
She felt her students needed a gym because the school’s existing recreation space, an old assembly hall with a basketball hoop, was not adequate.
“The kids needed a setting where they could compete in a competitive environment,” she said. "The old court had two poles in the middle. It was like having a basketball team with seven players instead of five."
The academy is part of a grouping of Baltimore religious landmarks — the school, the church and rectory — that are also the gift of local philanthropists.
St. Ann’s Catholic Church, with its emerald green steeple, gray stone walls and iron ship’s anchor (resting outside the bell tower), is a reminder of the 19th-century ship captain, William Kennedy. He and his vessel, the Wanderer, and crew were being tossed about off Vera Cruz in 1833. The Wanderer’s anchor held; Kennedy’s desperate prayers answered.