Community mourns closing of nursery


If the Butcher's Hill neighborhood in Southeast Baltimore has a soundtrack, it might be the happy noises of preschoolers ringing from a three-story brick schoolhouse due west of Patterson Park.

At least until June.

That's when the day nursery, founded in 1936 by the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate, a dwindling order of Polish nuns, is set to close its doors at the corner of Patterson Park and East Lombard Street for good.

Word of the closing has hit hard in this Eastern European stronghold, where generations of families still turn to the nuns to ease their toddlers from babyhood into kindergarten.

"I'm just so sad," said Mary Rybczynski, whose three children attended the nursery. Her youngest graduated in 2002.

"It's been ingrained in the community for decades and decades. I feel bad that I won't be able to send my grandchildren there," Rybczynski added.

Neighborhood groups also mourned the end.

"I saw the sisters this morning with a little one who didn't want to get out of the car, and Sister Teresa said, 'Come on, come inside and we will have a good day.' I was thinking, 'How many years has she been doing that?'" said Nancy Supik, coordinator of the Friends of Patterson Park, whose headquarters is near the nursery.

Last week, the four sisters who run the nursery sent parents a letter announcing the June 27 closing.

"We realized that we could no longer give quality education and care for your children," the letter explained. "We have enjoyed serving children and their families for the past 67 years."

Every weekday, except two weeks during the summer, the nursery welcomes about 50 children for days that begin at 7 a.m. and end at 5 p.m.

Attending to their needs, teaching them to read and sing and behave, while also providing hot, home-cooked meals, has taken its toll on the aging nuns who operate the nursery, said Sister Carol Carne.

"The biggest thing is the declining number of sisters trained in child care," she said. The order, founded in Poland in 1878, has just 36 sisters in this country, most of them in nursing homes in Hyattsville and Catonsville, or caring for sacred vessels and vestments in Cleveland and at the National Shrine in Washington.

But finances also played a role in the decision, according to the letter, which cited "limited resources" and the need for "expensive and costly renovations."

Tuition barely defrays the costs of operating the nursery. The Sisters charge $90 a week per child.

Compared to the $250 a week Nancy Williams pays for a nanny, the nursery is a steal, she said.

"Can you believe how affordable it is?" Williams asked ruefully.

As word of the nursery's closure spread through Butcher's Hill, offers of financial help and notes of sorrow poured in from baby boomers who attended as children and whose own kids followed suit.

"I wish there was a way to keep it open," said Rybczynski, whose husband's family has a long history with the order.

"It's like bringing your children to family," said Mary Fieden, whose daughter Carly, 3, and son Christopher, 5, both attend. "You have no concerns when you drop your kids here."

"It's too bad," said Jean-Luc Renaux, whose 5-year-old son, Luc, is in kindergarten.

Most mornings, father and son walk the block from their historic 1875 rowhouse to the nursery. On Fridays, tradition holds that Luc rides his father's shoulders to school.

That tradition will end when Luc begins commuting to Bishop John Neumann School in Highlandtown next year.

"It's a little thing, but it was nice to leave the car in the garage and walk together," Renaux said.

Rena Ashworth, who lives across the street, echoed the sentiment.

"It's just an institution. It's like it's always been there," Ashworth said.

Planting pansies in a pot across from the nursery's walled playground, Ashworth calculated that she has been eavesdropping on the sounds of preschoolers at play for 29 years.

"And aren't we going to miss that, I tell you," Ashworth said, pausing on her front steps.

Her grown children, Felicita and Dan, smile in a 1977 graduation snapshot taken in the sisters' rose garden. Native Spanish speakers adopted from Central America, they learned English on one side of East Lombard Street and Polish folk songs on the other.

Though founded to raise the children of the Poles and Ukrainians who predominated in the neighborhood 70 years ago, today the nursery's students reflect the area's ethnic mixture, said Sister Carol.

"We have a very diverse population. It's always been that way."

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