Nuns fight neighborhood deprivation with tutoring


At Brentwood Avenue and Chase Street, a block north of the Maryland Penitentiary, the neighborhood children, carrying their homework, come through the old chapel's door. Soon, a nun appears and the reading lessons, arithmetic tutorial program and supervised play begin.

The Oblate Sisters of Providence cannot say no to any child who wants to learn. Their gift to their neighborhood is this informal after-school tutorial program that also provides a haven for children of crime-ridden, impoverished Johnston Square, a section of East Baltimore that stretches south of Green Mount Cemetery to the city jail.

The nuns, whose religious order for Roman Catholic "women of color" was founded in Baltimore in 1829, staff a regular four-year high school, the historic St. Frances Academy, housed in a landmark, 1870s Victorian brick building that faces the 400 block of E. Chase St. The coeducational high school has 137 students.

But as part of their dedication to Johnston Square, the nuns open their doors for an after-school program for about 40 children, who one day this week clustered around Sister Virginia Mance, O.S.P., as she led them through their ABCs and arithmetic tables.

"The children like to come to wherever the sisters are. They like to learn. This group, in particular, is good. We have one little girl who wants to do nothing but math," said Sister Reginald Gerdes, O.S.P., the school's director of development who has a highly developed sense of local history.

Sister Reginald relates the history of the old chapel-auditorium-rectory. When the chapel was new in 1913, the sisters and the students -- St. Frances was then an all-black girls' finishing school for the Catholic elite -- attended daily Mass there.

The auditorium was used for plays, operettas and the girls' piano lessons. Two neighboring Catholic congregations, St. John the Evangelist and St. James the Less, also helped out at annual oyster roasts and the 40 Hours Eucharistic devotion in the chapel. Both churches are now closed.

Years ago, the Oblate Sisters took their vows in the chapel. Dressed in white wedding gowns, they pledged their lives to God and to the rules of their religious order. They received their black habits and veils there, too.

"If the chapel building could talk, it would be a legend in itself," said Sister Reginald.

Today, the sisters worship in a smaller chapel in their convent, a complex of several rowhouses in the 1000 block of Brentwood Ave. The old chapel, which retains its fine marble altar, is now used for religious ceremonies, lectures and student assemblies and for programs for the neighborhood children.

"We let the older boys address the smaller children from the neighborhood. They can get to them better than I can," said Sister Reginald.

"We want the older students in the academy, the high-schoolers, to be role models for the younger children. We teach responsibility," said Sister John Francis Schilling, O.S.P., an English teacher and counselor who runs the tutorial program for the neighborhood children who mostly attend Johnston Square Elementary School on Valley Street.

Last month, the Abell Foundation gave the nuns nearly $37,000 for a new roof for the chapel, which was not included in the renovation of the academy building about 15 years ago.

The chapel, a separate structure on the Brentwood Avenue side of the complex, was in a sorry state until recent renovations. It now has a new roof, shatter-proof windows (alas, many of the original leaded glass windows were broken by vandals) and a fresh interior paint job.

The chapel also includes the school's cafeteria (the former auditorium) and a priest's residence. But, because there is no clergyman stationed at St. Frances, the quarters are now used as classrooms and for the tutorial program.

Sister John Francis, the director of the tutorial program, is also the statistician for the St. Frances Panthers, the school's girls and boys basketball teams. The teams do well even though the school has no gym or playground.

Nevertheless, St. Frances produced Clemson University basketball star Devin Gray, who has not forgotten his old school.

"When Devin comes back to visit us, it's a great inspiration for the whole school but especially the little children," said Sister John Francis. "They look up to people like him and he can give a lot back to them."

At St. Frances, community service is a requirement and the high-schoolers help tutor the neighborhood children.

"So many of the families of this neighborhood are falling apart," said Sister Reginald. "I've watched this part of the city change. The children don't seem to have any supervision. They want love, attention. They flock to our door. We can't turn them away. It's a safe place to be."

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