The sweet, silver voices of Sister Bernadette Gregorek's third-graders making the Stations of the Cross swirl into the vaulting arches of St. Alphonsus church and echo in the heart as half-remembered prayers.
Their heads barely bob above the pews as they sing an English version of the "Stabat Mater," a very old liturgical poem:
At the Cross, her station keeping
Stood the mournful mother weeping . . .
These 12 children in bright patchwork parkas and gray flannel sweat suits are from the St. Alphonsus-Basilica school, at Saratoga Street and Park Avenue. They chant a final "Our Father," then scamper across Saratoga Street to a salmon-colored brick building with the bright gold words "St. Alphonsus Halle" high overhead.
St. Alphonsus has carved out a unique niche in the city's parochial school system. Here's a Catholic elementary school that thrives essentially without its own neighborhood parish. It's the downtown school, the most inner-city of inner-city parochial schools, and it draws students from all over Baltimore, and from the suburbs, too. St. Alphonsus flourishes in the very heart of the city because it serves a need for people coming into town.
"We're pretty much a commuter school," says Kirk P. Gaddy, the dynamic young principal who's just rounding out his first year at St. Alphonsus. Parents who work downtown bring their children with them to St. Alphonsus.
Mr. Gaddy says he's got students from almost every Baltimore ZIP code, from Baltimore County and even Harford, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties.
"We have a lot of folks who work at Mercy Hospital," he says, "at Social Security Administration, the Mayor's Office, the Police Department, University of Maryland schools, even the small downtown shops."
They drop their children off for before-school care at 7 a.m., the official opening time, or even earlier, and pick them up at 5:30 p.m., or later, when after-care has ended.
Parents want the disciplined, structured, quality education St. Alphonsus offers their children, Mr. Gaddy says. "And I guarantee they will learn," he says. "I have a committed faculty here, and my faculty knows that their job is about learning, to make sure our children learn. And our children will learn."
Among the 6- and 7-year-olds in Jeneice Linton's first-grade class, the consensus is that St. Alphonsus is "fun." The kids like practically everything about St. Al's.
Tiana Deshields, who is 6 and not at all abashed about sitting alone because she was talking, pretty much summed up the attitude of her class: "I like the school. I like my teacher. And I like doing spelling. I like doing phonics. I like my teacher because my teacher is lovely and she's wonderful."
Ms. Linton has, in fact, become better-known around the school as "Lovely" than as Jeneice. A nominee for the Teacher of the Year Award in the archdiocese, she is universally regarded as an exceptional teacher.
"I like Miss Lovely Linton because we learn a lot of things," says Sierra Coppage, who is 6 and wears her hair in two splendid braids and can spell her name with dispatch for a visiting reporter.
Parents seem as dedicated to St. Alphonsus as their children. Georgeann Loudermilk used to bring her daughter Kelly Sean all the way in from Dundalk on the No. 10 bus to St. Alphonsus, a daily trek that could take almost an hour.
"I dropped her off and went on to work," says Ms. Loudermilk, an investigations clerk for the Social Security Administration at Metro Plaza.
She's since moved downtown, only four blocks from St. Alphonsus. Kelly has been in school three years. And Ms. Loudermilk is head of the St. Alphonsus PTA.
Looking for nuns
Ms. Loudermilk, who's 38, was born and raised Catholic at St. Clement's in Rosedale. She brought Kelly to kindergarten at St. Alphonsus because she wanted her to have Catholic schooling, too.
"Once I got her here I found out Catholic schools were really different now," she says. "I was looking for nuns."
She had vivid memories of those formidable religious ladies in black habits from St. Clement's.
Of the 15 teachers at St. Alphonsus, three are nuns, including, of course, Sister Bernadette. Which is a fairly high number. In the Archdiocese of Baltimore, about one teacher in nine is a "religious."
But only Sister Margarita Musquera, who teaches Spanish, wears a habit anything like the nuns of Ms. Loudermilk's school days. Sister Margarita, an Oblate Sister of Providence, wears a simple but well-tailored black suit with a high-necked blouse and an abbreviated veil.
Mr. Gaddy has a young faculty. He's just 30. But at 60 the Cuban-born Sister Margarita is easily one of the most youthful. She's a very animated teacher, who teaches Spanish with a rumba beat.
Sister Bernadette, a Sister of Mercy, wore a parka and a modest skirt and blouse to lead her class along the Way of the Cross, the 14 stations that symbolize the path of Jesus through the old city of Jerusalem to Calvary.
They have the church pretty much to themselves. A few women left over from morning Mass kneel and pray in pews before the altar. Near the door a half-dozen street people rest their feet and stare morosely into the apse with its Redemptorist Gothic profusion of columns and groins and arches and saintly images.
Sister Bernadette's children had been preparing for their visit to the church all week. They'd drawn their own Stations and strung them with ribbons of Lenten purple along the wall of their high-ceilinged, old-fashioned classroom.
"It's really good to continue things like this in our tradition," Sister Bernadette says. "We all have different traditions. If we don't carry these things on they'll be forgotten."
Only a third of her children are Catholic. "But I really couldn't even point out to you which ones are," Sister Bernadette says.
Mr. Gaddy says about 60 percent of his students are not Catholic, which is more or less typical of Baltimore Catholic elementary and middle schools.
Not all Catholic
In the whole archdiocese, which includes eight Maryland counties as well as the city, about 23 percent of the students are not Catholic. But of the 10,734 students in the city, the numbers of non-Catholics going to inner-city schools can run as high as eight out of 10. About 50-50 is average.
Sending a child to St. Alphonsus costs about $2,200, which is on the low end of parochial school tuitions. Tuition at other city parochial schools averages $2,400 to $2,500.
"St. Alphonsus Halle" is more than 120 years old and occasionally awkward for modern education. But its roomy old classrooms are bright and cheerful with wonderful stamped tin ceilings and walls.
In his office under the combination gym-lunchroom-auditorium, Mr. Gaddy is downright passionate about Catholic education. His conversations proceed at the rhythm of the slap-pop-slap of kids running basketball patterns overhead.
Mr. Gaddy, who also teaches English and religion, is a committed "cradle Catholic." His family has been Catholic for generations.
"I've been involved as a student in Catholic schools, then teaching and administrating Catholic education for practically 25 years," he says. "That's almost all my life."
He grew up in East Baltimore, where his family is deeply rooted. He started the elementary grades at St. James and St. John parochial school, went on to St. Wenceslaus middle school and then St. Francis Academy. He earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Loyola College.
Sister Margarita taught him Spanish at St. James and John. Her order, Oblate Sisters of Providence, founded St. Francis Academy in 1828. Oblate Sisters taught his mother, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers, including his brother Kenneth, presently a priest assigned to a church in the Virgin Islands. Mr. Gaddy lives in Rockdale in western Baltimore County now, but his two children go to school at St. James and John just as their father did.
"The best gift that the Catholic church has to give any inner-city child is the possibility to have a Catholic education," he says. "Churches still support Catholic education for all children regardless of race or creed.
"We need to uphold that," he says.
"If we could get a child who is in rigors of the roughest of communities who can receive a quality education, then that to me is going to break the cycle of poverty," he says. "That's the only way we can break the cycle of poverty.
"Once I educate the mind, the mind becomes proud. The mind is going to become great, it wants to succeed. The mind wants to succeed under any circumstance."
Become great, not just good
He urges his students at St. Alphonsus to become great, not just good. "I'm anti-good-child," he says. "I don't want good children. I want children to become great. Goodness to me lasts 24 hours. Greatness is a lifetime commitment."
Mr. Gaddy likes to say his school is multicultural, but the mix is pretty thin. About 98 percent of his 200 students are African-American. He's got two white kids, one Korean child and one Chinese student.
Kelly Sean Loudermilk is one of St. Alphonsus' white kids. "It doesn't seem to bother her," says her mom, Ms. Loudermilk. "I don't think color is an issue with these kids. I think they look at what they have in common and what they share."
Mr. Gaddy is deeply committed to a multicultural school, but he doesn't make apologies for the numbers at St. Alphonsus. "We offer good-quality Catholic education to all people who want to be part of that," Mr. Gaddy says. "Regardless of whether they are black, white, Asian, or the like, they have the opportunity to come to St. Alphonsus."
He's proud of his heritage as an African-American Catholic.
"The African-American Catholic community gives the Catholic church special gifts," he says. "The gift of community. The gift of faith. The gift of soul-searching.
"African people, not just in Baltimore, have always blessed the Catholic church with their talents and gifts," he says. "And the church is lucky, very fortunate, to have African-American people. It brings about the true universality of the Catholic church."
He often paraphrases an African proverb, saying "It takes a whole village to educate a child."
"We can reinforce," he says. "We can stimulate. We can synthesize. We can analyze. Do all the things we're supposed to do. But none of this will be any good if we don't have the partnership of the community and the parent.
"It takes the whole village," he says, "the whole village, not just the teacher -- it takes the parents, it takes the grandparents, it takes the uncle, it takes the neighborhood, it takes everybody to educate these children."