After 6 years, community center opens; New House of Mercy to offer more services


Eyes flitting everywhere, five children from James McHenry Elementary School next door bounded into the new House of Mercy in West Baltimore and checked out the bathrooms, the closets, the windows, the elevators, the kitchen.

The kid things.

Sure, the adult places were fine -- the community room, the library, the offices, the computer room all still empty. But, said 10-year-old Alphonso Jones, the little places were the best.

The children were the first to visit their much-awaited $1.1 million facility. For six years it has been planned, prayed for and now paid for by many contributors to give the neighborhood a community center.

"This is a wonderful place. You want to be part of it," said Sister Mary Christopher, one of several volunteers busy preparing for events leading to a "grand public opening" May 1.

Sister Margaret Downing, the director, isn't waiting for the formal opening. Before the end of the month, the after-school program will be transferred from a temporary home on Pratt Street to the new three-story center at 901 Hollins St., two blocks north of the B&O; Railroad Museum.

Many families in the community look forward to the addition of day care for younger children. "We need this so badly, licensed day care for 20 children 2 to 5 years old," said Downing.

Staff and volunteers look for ways to serve the community.

Sue Hamell, the House of Mercy nurse, was in constant contact with a pregnant diabetic woman in her last trimester. The woman spent much of a recent weekend in labor, delivering a 10-pound girl. Hamell stayed with her throughout, took her home and made arrangements to help the family.

"This kind of true attention to individual health needs is highly unusual and our hope for what the House of Mercy can be for the families," Downing said.

Sponsored by -- but not controlled by -- the Sisters of Mercy, the House of Mercy is a private, nonprofit, nondenominational agency. Serving 150 to 200 families, it has operated in several nearby spots since 1992. Like Downing, its families live in the Poppleton community, an area bounded by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Pratt, McHenry, Gilmor and Saratoga streets.

Said Amy Freeman, chairwoman of the House of Mercy and a vice president at Mercy Medical Center: "The sisters have been [in Southwest Baltimore] for 144 years. They're saying, 'We'll continue to be with you.' "

Services include mentoring children ages 6 to 13, an after-school program, a club for adolescent girls, health services and other support for families. New services will include adult education, parent support groups and, possibly, legal advocacy.

"Our focus will be hospitality," Freeman said. "Part of every staff member's job is to be available in the reception area to greet anyone, to offer a cup of tea, and to discuss the reason for coming."

Downing sees the house as a "connector between those with abundant resources and those with few."

The student council of Highlands Elementary School, Danvers, Mass., collected 24 boxes of books for the new library. A cousin of Downing's works at that school.

The Knights of Columbus, St. Joseph's Parish, Cockeysville, distributed 32 bicycles last year to Poppleton children through the House of Mercy.

Twelve adults are serving as mentors for neighborhood children.

"Anyone 18 and over interested is welcome," Downing said. "It's soup to nuts: making cookies or reading at the center; going to the symphony or museum or library or ballgame. Expanding the children's horizons."

Pub Date: 2/11/99

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