Deaconesses return to their old home in Towson

Sister Katherine Homburg stepped off a tour bus Tuesday and easily slipped back a half-century to her days at the Lutheran Deaconess House and School in Towson. She studied for her ministry on a campus known today as Greenwood, the Baltimore County Board of Education's administrative offices.

"As soon as we drove up the driveway, I recognized the curve in the road and the brick buildings," said Homburg, a retired member of the Deaconess Community of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the deaconesses are convening in Baltimore this week.

Gone are the rows of dogwoods, the small pool and the pine tree where cars would turn around at the entrance to the mansion built in 1910. But many amenities have endured, she said. She walked through the gracious living room and the spacious dining room that flowed into a solarium.

"Even the stairs and the molding are the same," she said as she stood on the graceful winding staircase in the mansion foyer. "It is exciting to be in the same rooms."

School officials offered about a dozen members of the deaconess community a light luncheon and a tour, but ultimately Homburg served as the guide.

"I am familiar with this home through photos, but I wanted to see it in person," said Cathy Lundeen, archivist for the community.

As they sat around the large dining table, the sisters shared stories amid laughter. During their tenure at Greenwood, the deaconesses took part in the long tradition of sledding down the hill that drops to North Charles Street. Only their descent was on the largest pans from the pantry, Homburg said. She spoke of the neighbors' confusion about the sisters' role in society.

"We were a motherhouse and a training school," she said. "But some thought we were a home for unwed mothers and a school for girls who had gotten into trouble."

The large room off the first-floor hallway was once a chapel with floor-to-ceiling arched windows that allowed sunlight to shine on prayers, she said.

The county purchased the 22-acre property, a few miles south of the Beltway, in 1966. The school board adapted the mansion and other brick buildings for offices and added one more structure to the campus in 1970.

"I hope we haven't messed the place up for you," said Carol Wirtz, administrative assistant to Superintendent Joe A. Hairston, who was attending meetings in New York. "The mansion has changed but then again, it hasn't. We have kept much of the architectural details."

Soon after the sale of Greenwood, the Baltimore community merged with its sisters in Philadelphia, where they used proceeds from the sale to build a retirement home for their members.

The deaconesses, now based in Chicago, number about 75 in the U.S. and Canada and recently celebrated their 125th anniversary. The women no longer live in community and many are married with children.

Deaconesses are involved in numerous professions, including nursing, teaching, social work and counseling. They assist pastors in parishes, travel abroad to mission assignments and serve as chaplains in hospitals and schools.

"We are called to word and service," said Sister Joy Hovis. "We are consecrated but not ordained. We take the word of God out into the community."

And, on Tuesday, they shared a little of their own history with those who work in their former home.

"It is just so fabulous for all of us to come here and see the history here," said Sister Margaret Thorne. "I have heard so many stories about these buildings."

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