Stone landmark may fall victim to development


How could anyone raze one of Mount Washington's most important landmarks, a picturesque 1883 gray stone house set in a garden of old trees?

That's what some residents are asking about the Victorian house at 5707 Smith Ave., home of the Mount St. Agnes Theological Center for Women.

USF&G;, the insurer, purchased this property, on which sits the former women's college, in the 1980s. Last month the insurance firm unveiled plans for a large parking garage, with a row of shops and offices on its front. The structure would be situated along Mount Washington village's northern edge, adjacent to the Northwest Baltimore community's light rail stop.

USF&G; officials have since backed off immediate plans to build the parking garage, but wary residents believe the concept is neither dead nor buried.

"It may be delayed a while, but it is clear that somebody wants this spot to earn them money," said Paul M. Hanley, a bay pilot whose Regent Road home overlooks the site.

This handsome convent sits squarely on the parcel that is being eyed for development. It was long the home of the provincial of the Sisters of Mercy.

The convent has a venerable place in Baltimore's Roman Catholic history. It was within these walls that the mother superior lived and interviewed candidates for the sisterhood. Many of the sisters taught in schools or worked in hospitals.

"When I came in here, I walked up the road and threw away a package of cigarettes. You knelt down at a long table. I promised to go where I'd be sent and to do what I'm told to do," said Sister Mary Aquin O'Neill, who entered the order at age 17.

That long table she recalls remains in a room now used for scholarly study.

Today, Sister Mary Aquin is a theologian and heads the Smith Avenue center, which USF&G; owns but rents to the order on a month-to-month lease.

The Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women is dedicated to fostering "solidarity among women seeking the fullness of life and equality in church and society."

The theological center, whose walls are made of locally quarried gray stone, is one of the most picturesque buildings in the quaint Mount Washington village. It faces Baltimore Clayworks, a former Enoch Pratt Free Library branch. Its closest neighbor was once the Mount Washington railroad station, a frame structure that was torn down in the 1960s and is today a light rail stop.

The former convent sits comfortably at the base of a well-landscaped hill. A little stream runs through the backyard. Mature trees dot the property.

"What we have is a village and what is being proposed is a metro center," Paul Hanley said of the project, which was initially outlined to members of the Mount Washington Improvement Association a few weeks ago.

Since then, he and other neighbors have vowed to monitor the insurance firm's plans as they are proposed, modified and changed.

"What we were shown was massive, totally out of character for the village," Hanley said.

Sister Mary Aquin praises USF&G; officials for allowing the nuns to rent the Smith Avenue property long after the old Mount St. Agnes College had closed and its campus was reconfigured for corporate purposes.

"Everyone agrees USF&G; has been a good neighbor," she said.

She feels that the history of this convent-theological center should be better recognized by the neighborhood. The nuns and students work quietly. It is somewhat difficult to detect the religious status of the building. There is only a small sign and a small Victorian woodwork cross atop the building's slate roof. And a bay window is outfitted with stained-glass panels. The interior has been lovingly cared for over the years.

The building went up in 1883 as the rectory of the village's Catholic church, the Shrine of the Sacred Heart. In 1917, a new church was dedicated. It is modeled after one in Stoke-Poges, Buckinghamshire, England, where poet Thomas Gray is said to have penned his 1751 "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." The former rectory then became the Convent of the Holy Family and the home of the mother superior.

By the 1970s, the sisters decided to close Mount St. Agnes College and merge it with Loyola College. But so sacred was the gray stone provincial house that a group of nuns stayed on, renting from USF&G.;

"We don't have any power. We don't have any property, but we have the saints with us," Sister Mary Aquin said.

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